GOP's Karen Handel Beats
Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia

By Janet Hook, Cameron McWhirter and Reid J. Epstein | The Wall Street Journal | June 20, 2017

Republican candidate for Georgia's 6th District Congressional seat Keran Handel celebrates with her husband Steve as she declares victory during an election-night watch party Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Atlanta.
Republican candidate for Georgia's 6th District Congressional seat Keran Handel celebrates with her husband Steve as she
declares victory during an election-night watch party Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Atlanta.

Republicans held on to a hotly contested U.S. House seat in Georgia on Tuesday, beating back an aggressive challenge that showed the Democrats' inability to turn opposition to Donald Trump's presidency into electoral gains.

Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, beat Democrat Jon Ossoff, a onetime congressional aide, in the most expensive House race in history and the most significant test of the two parties' political strength since Mr. Trump's election.

The Associated Press called Ms. Handel the winner.

In winning the seat, Republicans overcame a Democratic advantage in campaign spending and showed that Mr. Trump retained political capital in the district. The president, Vice President Mike Pence and other party luminaries visited the Atlanta suburbs to bolster Ms. Handel's candidacy.

The result was a big blow to Democrats, who were hungry for a victory to demonstrate that grass roots, anti-Trump energy gives them a shot at taking control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Democrats earlier this year lost two other contested House special elections, in Kansas and Montana.

In South Carolina, Republican Ralph Norman held the House seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump's budget director, but by a far closer margin than expected. Mr. Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs executive, by less than four percentage points. Mr. Mulvaney won the district by 20 points in November and Mr. Trump carried it by 18 points.

The twin victories mean that Republicans are 4-for-4 in the House special elections that are being widely viewed for signals to each party's prospects next year in the battle for control of the House, which is now held by the Republicans. All along, Georgia had been considered Democrats' best shot at a victory.

Mr. Ossoff's defeat will likely prompt soul-searching among Democrats about what it will take to flip Republican-held seats in the 2018 midterm fight for control of the House, given that such a vast effort in Georgia fell short. More than $31 million was poured into the Ossoff campaign by donors and outside groups, compared with more than $23 million spent by Ms. Handel's campaign and its allies.

Still, the fact that Republicans had to work so hard to hold on to a historically conservative district sends a warning to GOP incumbents and candidates that they will have a tougher fight than usual next year, especially in suburbs like Georgia's sixth district, where many residents are affluent and hold college degrees.

Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in Georgia unaffiliated with the Handel campaign, said the Republican win means the party "dodged a bullet."

But Republicans still should see the expensive race as "a wake-up call to our base and our party" because the election in a traditionally Republican district should not have been close. "I'm glad we won, but we shouldn't have had to spend $20 million to $25 million to do it," he said.

Ed Painter, chairman of the GOP in Georgia's 12th congressional district, said Ms. Handel won in part because she drew support from Republican voters who might have been slow to come around because they were alienated by Mr. Trump's election.

"We're getting some reluctant Republicans who really don't like Trump," said Mr. Painter. "The specter of seeing another Democrat up there really frightened them."

At Mr. Ossoff's election night party at a hotel in Sandy Springs, supporters were stung by disappointment, but vowed to press on. "Things will turn," said Mark Miller, a former Republican from East Cobb County who supported Mr. Ossoff. "Trump will be gone and Republicans will pay the price for it. I don't know when that will happen, but it will happen."

"The very fact that we've even been talking about this race for months is an indication of how very bad things are for Republicans right now," said Ian Russell, former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The midterm election map includes many potential battleground districts that aren't as heavily skewed to the GOP as the Georgia seat. For example, Democrats are targeting 23 House Republicans representing districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election.

Mr. Ossoff had launched his campaign months ago by tapping into Democrats' surging anti-Trump activism. His early appeals called on donors to "make Trump furious." Donations came from around the country.

But he soon adopted a more centrist campaign message, as he would need significant support from independents and Republicans. Mr. Ossoff didn't speak much on the stump about Mr. Trump, focusing instead on local economic development and calling for bipartisan cooperation.

On Election Day, he tried to mobilize his supporters for the final push, writing on Twitter: "Let's summon everything we've got to outwork, out-hustle, out-fight."

Ms. Handel rallied Republicans with a warning that Mr. Ossoff was too inexperienced and liberal for the district. Despite Mr. Ossoff's centrist tone on the stump, Ms. Handel argued that he would inevitably have to fall in line with liberal party leaders, such as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

"Republicans are motivated," Ms. Handel said in a CNN interview. "They surely don't want Nancy Pelosi's guy coming in."

Election Day brought torrential rains and flash flood warnings to the district. More than 140,308 people had already voted in early balloting, according to the Georgia Secretary of State's office. That was almost three times the 56,830 people who voted early in the first round of balloting in April, during a special election primary that winnowed an 18-candidate field. The June 20 runoff was needed because no candidate in April won more than 50% of the vote, although Mr. Ossoff came close with 48%.

The race is seen as a potential bellwether for the 2018 midterm elections because many battlegrounds in the fight for control of the House are likely to be suburban, affluent GOP districts like Georgia's sixth. Mr. Trump struggled in many of these districts in 2016.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer downplayed the race's broader significance ahead of the results. "If you look historically, special elections generally don't foretell the outcome of races multiple years down the road," he said Tuesday afternoon.

The GOP victory could help Mr. Trump advance his legislative agenda in Congress. Mr. Ossoff had made a major issue of his opposition to GOP legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act; his defeat could help bolster Republican resolve to keep trying to move a health bill through the Senate.

The outcome could also shape the candidate field for the 2018 midterm elections, making it easier for Republicans to recruit candidates for the House, as well as keep incumbents from retiring. However, the party holding the White House typically loses seats in a midterm election.

The Georgia district has been represented by the Republican Party since Newt Gingrich won it in 1978. Democrats made it a test of their political strength this year, because Mr. Trump barely won the district in 2016. The seat came open when Mr. Trump chose Rep. Tom Price to be secretary of Health and Human Services.

The president, who attended a fundraiser for Ms. Handel in April, put more of his own political capital on the line in a series of tweets Monday and Tuesday supporting her and attacking Mr. Ossoff. Urging his followers to vote for Ms. Handel, he wrote on Twitter, "She will fight for lower taxes, great healthcare strong security-a hard worker who will never give up!"

The record $60 million in campaign spending saturated the district with fliers, television ads and digital ads—most of them negative—as well as door-to-door canvassing so intense that many voters felt beleaguered.

"I'm voting! I've heard so much about the campaign! I'm voting!'' said one Marietta resident who slammed the door on a canvasser for a conservative group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Cobb County voter Dianne Poland, who supported Ms. Handel in the race, has kept a growing pile of political mail under her living-room table. "I thought I'd have a bonfire!" she said of her post-election plans.