Washington, United States | AFP | Early results trickled in for Tuesday’s closely-watched election in Georgia, the most expensive congressional race ever, with the Republican narrowly leading a contest that Democrats have painted as a referendum on Donald Trump’s scandal-plagued presidency.
The $60-million special election has been a nailbiter between a Democratic novice seeking to score an upset in a conservative stronghold, and an establishment Republican eager to steady the ship in a district that only narrowly backed Trump in last November’s vote.
The special election in the southern state is painted as a referendum on Trump, and the result may presage how his presidency — for better or worse — could influence the battle for control of Congress in 2018.
With 99 of 208 precincts fully reporting, Republican Karen Handel was ahead of Democrat Jon Ossoff by 52.58 percent to 47.42 percent, according to Georgia secretary of state incoming results. Polls closed at 7:00 pm (2300 GMT).
The race came down to the wire as Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker and onetime political staffer running on a centrist message, and Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, spent election day seeking to convert as many independent or undecided voters as possible.
Republicans are facing a sobering reminder of their president’s poor approval ratings, which could act as a drag on their efforts to hold not just this congressional seat, but also the 435-member House of Representatives next year.
But early results appear to show Handel has performed better than expected in Democratic-leaning portions of Georgia’s sixth district.
Should Handel win, Trump may well claim some credit for getting her across the finish line. The president recorded a robo-call for her, and tweeted several messages encouraging Republicans to troop to the polls and cast their votes for her.
Handel, Trump tweeted early Tuesday, “will fight for lower taxes, great healthcare strong security — a hard worker who will never give up! VOTE TODAY.”
Ossoff is trying to flip the Atlanta suburbs that Republican Tom Price left to become Trump’s health secretary.
– ‘Arms race’ –
The Democrat won the first round against several candidates in April, but fell just shy of outright victory.
The June 20 runoff quickly became the most expensive House race in history, with the campaigns, political action committees and other outside groups raising nearly $60 million, according to government reform and ethics group Issue One.
“Out-of-state money has poured in on both sides. It’s become a little bit of an arms race,” Ossoff told CNN.
Handel, her own campaign flooded with outside donations, has kept pace, emphasizing her area roots.
Voters “are not interested in Hollywood, California coming in and buying this seat,” she told Fox News.
Republicans have held the seat since 1979. But as an increasingly well-educated, diverse suburban district it is exactly the kind of territory that Democrats need to win if they want to gain the 24 seats necessary to reclaim the House in 2018.
As the two parties duked it out, Trump loomed large over Georgia.
“The Trump phenomenon is extremely dominant in this race,” and Handel’s fate is most likely tied to voters’ views of the president, Georgia-based Republican strategist Chip Lake told AFP.
A Handel win could energize Republicans, boosting their efforts with health care and tax reform legislation. Her loss would prompt party-wide handwringing.
“If we’re losing upper middle-class suburban seats in the South, we need to start having discussions immediately on… how in the world are we going to limit the damage in 2018 with Donald Trump as head of our party and president of the United States,” Lake added.
– Test for anti-Trump camp –
In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the district by 21 percentage points over president Barack Obama, Lake noted. Four years later, Trump carried it by just 1.4 points.
Handel has aligned herself gingerly with Trump. Vice President Mike Pence attended a fundraiser for her.
Tuesday’s runoff is one of four chances opposition Democrats have had to snatch a House seat since Trump took office.
Special elections in Kansas and Montana — also to replace Republicans who joined Trump’s team — were seen as opportunities for Democrats to score first strikes against the administration.
But with Democrats falling short in those races, and Republicans expected to hold a South Carolina congressional seat also up for grabs Tuesday, all eyes have turned to Georgia.
Should Democrats fail to convert at least one of the seats, it could be a demoralizing blow for the anti-Trump resistance movement.