Democrats fell just short of a knockout blow in Georgia’s grueling, expensive special election Tuesday night — and both parties are already preparing to make the head-to-head runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel just as hard-fought and harsh.
Republicans and Democrats were already telegraphing strategy for a two-month runoff even before voters in Georgia’s 6th District had finished casting ballots on Tuesday, when Ossoff garnered 48 percent of the all-party primary vote. Last Friday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee posted research materials on Handel and another top Republican contender online, highlighting preferred attack lines for outside groups that could dive into the fray.
And Republicans look set to reprise their TV ads casting Ossoff as a bad fit for the usually conservative-leaning district: National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Steve Stivers linked Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and “Hollywood stars” in his late-night statement about the race, while the Congressional Leadership Fund mentioned “Hillary” and “liberal.”
The attacks the DCCC highlighted focus on spending in Handel’s office when she was Georgia’s secretary of state, including thousands of dollars in travel costs, playing off criticism Handel faced from fellow Republican candidates and outside groups before the primary.
Republicans hope that they can now unify their base and rally national support for a single nominee to keep the traditionally red district in the GOP column.
“Is it harder than it should be? Yes. More expensive? Yes. Is it a slam dunk? No,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in Georgia. “But at the end of the day, more people voted for Republican candidates today than Democratic candidates. All we’ve got to do is get those people back out again in June.”
Yet Ossoff’s strong showing Tuesday has Democrats thinking he can make the leap to a majority in June.
“In a head-to-head, none of these Republicans have shown the type of support within the district, the type of grassroots energy, that would make me think they can get to 50 over Ossoff,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former deputy director of the DCCC. “And so far, there’s been no ability for Democrats to fight back and define the Republican candidate because there isn’t one Republican candidate. That changes on Wednesday.”
The all-party, 18-candidate primary drew $14 million in ad spending, and the runoff is expected to be equally expensive. Ossoff raised over $8.3 million by the end of March, while Republican outside groups pumped in millions of their own dollars to boost GOP voter enthusiasm to match energized Democrats.
“It’s going to be expensive, and a battle, through and through,” said one national Republican operative. “I think both sides see the finish line, so I can’t speak for the Democrats, but I think we can keep up the energy now that we have one candidate to get behind.”
Just before the Associated Press officially called the race, Ossoff and Handel rallied their bases in victory speeches last night, urging their supporters to gird for the next phase of the fight. Ossoff will be counting on his online donors and thousands of volunteers to keep Democratic participation high in two months, while Handel has to rally the full measure of Republican support in the district, which splintered among more than a dozen primary candidates on Tuesday.
“For all of you who have been pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, making phone calls. There are thousands of you, and there will be a thousand more,” Ossoff said just before midnight to a cheering crowd. “We will be ready to fight on and win in June, if it is necessary. And there is no amount of dark money, super PAC, negative ad that can overcome real grassroots energy. So bring it on.”
Handel called for Republican unity as she claimed victory, saying: “Tomorrow we start the campaign anew,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. “Beating Ossoff and holding this seat is something that rises above any one person."
Handel faced a bruising GOP race for the runoff slot, with many of the intra-party attacks before April 18 focused on her. But Justin Tomczak, a Republican activist in the state, said, “Georgia Republicans come together for a runoff, regardless of how brutal the primary is.”
Gray, one of Handel’s toughest GOP opponents who was backed by The Club for Growth, was quick to line up behind her Tuesday night, tweeting that the GOP will “rally behind” her.