Jewish Democrat Jon Ossoff easily won the special election for suburban Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District but appeared to fall tantalizingly short Tuesday, April 18, of the majority he needed to avoid a runoff, to be held June 20 against Republican Karen Handel.
With 95 percent of the expected votes counted, Ossoff had 88,562 votes, 48.6 percent of the total, while Handel had 35,502 votes (19.5 percent). It was the first time since the polls closed at 7 p.m. that Ossoff dropped below 50 percent, and CNN promptly projected that there would be a runoff.
“We have defied the odds. We have shattered expectations. We are changing the world,” Ossoff said just before midnight, speaking when he had hope to avoid a runoff while Fulton County dealt with technical difficulties long after Cobb and DeKalb counties finished their counts.
Handel, the former secretary of state who lost a run for governor in 2010 and senator in 2014, finished well ahead of fellow Republicans Bob Gray (10.5 percent), Judson Hill (9 percent) and Dan Moody (8.7 percent) to set up a two-month, heads-up campaign for the seat Roswell Republican Tom Price vacated to become President Donald Trump’s health and human services secretary.
Reaching the runoff provided a birthday present for Handel, who had faced a flurry of attack ads from fellow Republicans in the final days of the campaign.
“It is important for Republicans to come together in unity because now it rises above just one person,” she said. “Two different résumés are being presented with two very different qualifications. I have faced adversity throughout my life and career and have always been told that you shouldn’t do this and you can’t do that. However, this has not deterred me in any way. I am not afraid to speak my mind. It is that same determination I will take to Congress to work for you.”
Update: The final counts from Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office:
- Jon Ossoff, 92,390 (48.1 percent)
- Karen Handel, 37,993 (19.8 percent)
- Bob Gray, 20,755 (10.8 percent)
- Dan Moody, 16,994 (8.9 percent)
- Judson Hill, 16,848 (8.8 percent)
- Kurt Wilson, 1,812 (0.94 percent)
- David Abroms, 1,637 (0.85 percent)
- Ragin Edwards, 502 (0.26 percent)
- Ron Slotin, 488 (0.25 percent)
- Bruce LeVell, 455 (0.24 percent)
- Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan, 414 (0.22 percent)
- Keith Grawert, 414 (0.22 percent)
- Amy Kremer, 349 (0.18 percent)
- William Llop, 326 (0.17 percent)
- Rebecca Quigg, 304 (0.16 percent)
- Richard Keatley, 227 (0.12 percent)
- Alexander Hernandez, 121 (0.06 percent)
- Andre Pollard, 55 (0.03 percent)
The outcome keeps alive the possibility of Georgia’s first Jewish congressman since Democrat Elliott Levitas lost a bid for a sixth term in 1984.
Voters in the 6th, which sweeps from East Cobb through North Fulton into North DeKalb and covers as much as half the population of Jewish Atlanta, are likely to see millions of dollars spent by national interests portraying the election as a referendum on Trump and such Democratic opponents as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
That national focus had a dramatic effect in the campaign leading up to April 18 as 11 Republicans, five Democrats and two independents competed for votes on the same ballot.
With the early endorsement of Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), Ossoff, 30, a former congressional aide to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Lithonia), emerged as the choice of national Democrats dreaming of flipping a district that had voted Republican since 1978. National progressive organizations such as website Daily Kos and End Citizens United helped Ossoff raise $8.3 million through the end of March, doubling the fundraising record for a Georgia congressional race.
In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee spent millions to tie Ossoff to Pelosi, mock his youth and point out that he can’t vote for himself because he lives outside the district. Although Ossoff grew up in the district in DeKalb, where his parents still live, he moved a 10-minute drive south of the 6th so that his girlfriend, an Emory medical student, could be closer to the university’s Clifton Road medical complex.
End Citizens United said the more than $7.4 million was spent on ads attacking Ossoff, most of it from super PACs and the NRCC, not individual candidates.
The relentless advertising for and against Ossoff steamrolled the other four Democrats, including another Jewish candidate, Ron Slotin, a former state senator who was the first candidate from his party to declare his candidacy. Slotin, Richard Keatley, Rebecca Quigg and Ragin Edwards all expressed frustration at what they saw as national Democratic interests choosing a candidate instead of letting the campaign run its course, and they combined to get less than 1 percent of the vote.
A third Jewish candidate, newcomer David Abroms, was one of the many Republicans who failed to gain much traction against former officeholders Handel, Moody and Hill, who brought an advantage in name recognition into the two-month campaign. Gray, a tech executive elected to the Johns Creek City Council in 2014, was the closest thing to an outsider to draw strong support.
“It has been extraordinary, fun, and I love the competition,” said Gray, who had tried to position himself as the closest ally to Trump in a district the president won by only 1.5 percentage points in November. “I have learned so much about the community and am happy to have got the chance to meet so many people.”
Abroms, who finished with about 0.85 percent, endorsed Handel for the runoff. “We are beyond the hypothetical and into the reality of a runoff between Ossoff and Karen Handel. The choice between the two is simple: Handel is a friend, a conservative and a woman of principle who will represent the 6th District well in Congress.”
Voters in East Cobb and part of Sandy Springs also cast ballots for the state Senate’s 32nd District seat, which Hill resigned to run for Congress. In a race among five Republicans and three Democrats, including Jewish pediatrician Bob Wiskind, Democrat Christine Triebsch (24 percent) and Republican Kay Kirkpatrick (21.9 percent) advanced to a runoff May 16.
Although little was made of it, the election took place on a Jewish holiday, the eighth day of Passover, forcing observant Jews to vote early or not at all. Secretary of State Brian Kemp reported that 55,000 ballots were cast early in the congressional election; about 5,000 of those were mailed-in absentee votes.
The first results of the night were the in-person advance votes from Ossoff’s native DeKalb County. He received more than 71 percent of those votes, providing hope that lasted past midnight that he would win the district without a runoff.
“The fact that there is a Democrat this close to 50 percent in a district that went more than 20 points for Tom Price means there are more Democrats ready to turn out, ready to work and ready to get it done,” state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said. “He presented a thoughtful campaign idea, he understood the breadth of the district, and he brought together holistic voters and not just one type of voter.”
Many Jewish activists were among the hundreds of Ossoff supporters who filled the ballroom at the Crown Plaza Ravinia, where cars lined the streets for blocks.
Dubose Porter, the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, said Ossoff’s strength lies in his ability to unite Georgians. “Jon is in the neighborhood talking about the issues, about family, the environment, about jobs, about things we need in Georgia to bring people together.”
Democratic state Sen. Vincent Fort, a mayoral candidate in Atlanta, said the Republicans, primarily Trump, have done young Democratic candidates like Ossoff a favor.
“It’s a historic night. It represents a real thirst for change,” Fort said. “It means that people who did not engage themselves last November are now energized and engaged. I think it shows a distinct distaste for Donald Trump — his style and mean-spirited approach to governance.”
Trump had his own take on the voting, tweeting early Wednesday: “Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG ‘R’ win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!”
NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said the party now is united behind Handel. “Even as Nancy Pelosi, national Democrats and even Hollywood stars threw everything they had behind Jon Ossoff, he failed miserably to meet his own expectations — an outright win tonight.”
But the idea of anyone in an 18-candidate field winning without a runoff, let alone a previously unknown Democrat in a solidly Republican district, seemed impossible when the ballot was set two months ago. It was only in the past two weeks that the possibility of an outright Ossoff win was taken seriously.
Still, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, which had endorsed Handel, declared victory with her second-place finish.
“Karen Handel is the only candidate with the courage to stand up to the abortion lobby,” list President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement early Wednesday. She called Ossoff “an extremist backed by America’s largest abortion business, Planned Parenthood.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, however, said Ossoff is lucky to face Handel, in part because she led breast cancer foundation Susan G. Komen in cutting off grants to Planned Parenthood in 2012.
Update: The final results from the 32nd District:
- Christine Triebsch, 14,169 (24.2 percent)
- Kay Kirkpatrick, 12,354 (21.1 percent)
- Roy Daniels, 8,904 (15.2 percent)
- Gus Makris, 5,963 (10.2 percent)
- Matt Campbell, 5,850 (10.0 percent)
- Bob Wiskind, 5,083 (8.7 percent)
- Exton Howard, 4,050 (6.9 percent)
- Hamilton Beck, 2,165 (3.7 percent)