By Robert Costa, Paul Kane and Elise Viebeck,
BROOKHAVEN, Ga. —
Thousands of voters in the suburbs north of Atlanta grabbed the country’s attention Tuesday as a special congressional election neared its end as a referendum on President Trump.
In Washington, party leaders — and Trump — were paying close attention to what has become the most expensive House race in history, hoping to make the case by day’s end that they were better positioned to jump-start Trump’s stalled agenda on Capitol Hill — or thwart it.
“KAREN HANDEL FOR Congress,” Trump tweeted as day broke Tuesday, touting the Republican candidate and former Georgia secretary of state. “She will fight for lower taxes, great health care strong security — a hard worker who will never give up! VOTE TODAY!”
Democrats spoke excitedly about Jon Ossoff, 30, a polished former congressional staffer who has raised more than $23 million and built a devoted grass-roots following, all while courting Republicans by bemoaning “wasteful” spending. They see his competitive candidacy in ruby-red suburbia as a possible harbinger ahead of next year’s midterm elections, when Democrats need to win 24 GOP-held seats to reclaim the House majority.
The race also could have a more immediate impact on Trump’s priorities. Republicans are laboring to agree on legislation to revise the Affordable Care Act. A GOP win on Tuesday could bring new momentum to their push to pass a bill in the Senate, while a defeat could embolden those who are concerned about the bill to more forcefully oppose it.
On Tuesday night, Handel took the stage shortly before 8 p.m. to thank supporters gathered in a small, second-floor ballroom in Brookhaven where Fox News aired on TV screens and older pop hits gently floated from the loudspeakers.
Handel talked up the early returns, in particular the in-person early voting totals in Fulton County, which had her ahead.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do, which was to make sure we kept things really close in absentee ballot and in-person early voting,” Handel said proudly as she stood at the lectern with her husband, Steve.
“I wanted to come down and really give an extraordinarily heartfelt thank you to every single one of you in this room,” she added, her voice slightly cracking. “Campaigns, they obviously keep the doors open because of the contributions from donors. But campaigns are won by the foot soldiers and people like you. … Whatever happens tonight, this is the most incredible group of winners I have ever had the privilege of working with. Y’all rock.”
Many of the men in the crowd — most of them with silver hair — were in dark blazers, in spite of the heat. But it wasn’t all country club casual: one couple wore leather jackets with “Bikers for Trump” across their backs.
Handel was leading by more than 5,000 votes around 9:20 p.m. with 39 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press.
Polls in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District opened at 7 a.m. on a humid morning, with commuters casting ballots with iced coffees in their hands on their way to child-care centers, office parks and downtown Atlanta.
Throughout the afternoon, most polling places remained busy, although torrential rain slowed the lunchtime turnout and there were flash flood warnings from the National Weather Service. Voting hours were extended by 30 minutes at two polling places where voters experienced delays casting ballots electronically on Tuesday morning. All other polls closed at 7 p.m.
Handel and Ossoff are vying to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price, who held it from 2005 until he joined Trump’s Cabinet this year as health and human services secretary.
A record turnout is expected: About 120,000 people have already voted, according to Georgia officials — nearly a quarter of registered voters here.
In another early tweet, Trump took a swipe at Ossoff’s centrist positioning and dismissed him as a liberal who “wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district.” Ossoff lives just outside the district with his fiancee.
Despite the contest’s national sheen and implications, many voters here said they will make their decision based less on Trump and more on how they view the two candidates, whose salvos have inundated televisions in a clash that has grown bitter and tense.
That dynamic could complicate the import that this race will carry beyond Tuesday. Special elections are often seen as microcosms of the national mood, but they do not always indicate coming political waves.
Inside the packed ballroom of a Westin in Sandy Springs, just a mile from Handel’s headquarters, a crowd of more than 1,000 remained buoyant and optimistic, even as some analysts questioned if Ossoff had hit his mark in the early vote.
Each time televisions showed a vote tally on CNN with Ossoff ahead, the crowd started chanting: “Flip the Sixth! Flip the Sixth!”
Some supporters said their ability to turn such a traditional Republican stronghold into a battleground was a victory in and of itself.
“We’re still going to be here,” Bill Atherton, 41, who works for a nonprofit that helps low-income families. “Now we believe we have a strong enough movement, not only to flip this district but inspire others.”
That was the kind of inspiration that struck Fran Brennan, 61, who came from central Michigan to spend a week in the district knocking on doors and making phone calls, along with a dozen or so friends.
A local labor leader, Brennan said that she felt “scared” after Trump’s victory in November but that this election was a key point in trying to push back against his agenda.
“We believe that this can be the turning point for the county. We feel that Jon has already won,” she said.
In this race, Trump has been everywhere and nowhere. Both contenders have mostly avoided talking about him at length in the final days. Handel has focused on turning out establishment, Trump-wary Republicans with classic GOP appeals, while Ossoff has talked up his willingness to be a bipartisan voice.
On Monday night, Ossoff never mentioned Trump once, even as TV trucks parked outside the shopping center where his campaign office is located and cable channels took the scene live in prime time. Homemade posters on the wall — scribbled in thick strokes with the slogan “Humble. Kind. Ready to fight” — did not mention Trump, either.
Ossoff — standing before a raucous crowd of hundreds, his sleeves rolled up — spoke passionately about women’s rights, gay rights and the urgency of addressing climate change. He knocked “those cynics in Washington, D.C.”
“There are people across this district, across this state, across this country who have lost faith,” Ossoff said, his voice quieting. “In this room, right now, is the team that can help to begin to restore that faith.”
Win or lose, Ossoff’s campaign will provide a frame for an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party as it struggles to find its way back to power, having been shut out in Washington and decimated on the state and local levels. That its candidate in this race is the unseasoned Ossoff is evidence of how thin its ranks have become.
On April 18, Ossoff nearly topped the 50 percent threshold that would have given him an outright victory in an 18-candidate primary field. Falling just short, he has found himself in a runoff against Handel, who has scrambled to consolidate the district’s Republican voters.
With Trump’s status as a political outsider who has violated political norms as backdrop, Handel and her supporters have pointedly embraced her experience and welcomed high-profile Republicans such as Price and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, as surrogates, knowing that most well-educated and wealthy voters here prize stability over populism or ideological purity.
Over the weekend, Handel, who has been active in social conservative circles for years, avoided discussing Trump but knocked Ossoff as someone with “San Francisco” values who identifies with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It was an unsurprising attack meant to rouse regular Republicans but also a sign of her uneasiness with how to align with Trump.
At Handel’s final campaign event Monday in Roswell, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) boasted of having spent 17 years in Congress before becoming governor, the sort of insider trait candidates normally hide these days. Deal said that Ossoff “never had a real job.”
As Deal spoke about how Handel would be the first woman to serve in Georgia’s congressional delegation, he kept returning to her credentials.
“We are hungry for qualified, capable women that carry the Republican banner,” Deal said.
While the affluent district has long been solidly red territory — Price breezed to a 23-point victory in November — it has not been quite as friendly to Trump’s brand of Republicanism. He won it over Hillary Clinton by only one percentage point in November’s general election — and lost it to Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) in the GOP primary.
Though the two contenders rarely mention Trump, the national significance of the contest has brought forth a flood of advertising and organization.
Spending in the race by the campaigns and outside groups has topped $50 million, making it by far the most expensive House contest in U.S. history.
Kane reported from Sandy Springs, Ga., and Viebeck reported from Washington. Michelle Baruchman, Sean Sullivan and Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report.