DUNWOODY, Ga. (AP) — An upstart Democrat leads a special election in a conservative Georgia congressional district, but returns late Tuesday suggest he may still need a runoff to pull a major upset for the longtime Republican-held seat.
And because of technical difficulties in the elections office of Georgia’s most populous county, it was not clear when final results would be available, leaving political observers across the country in an uncertain cliffhanger as they looked to Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer, sought to parlay opposition to President Donald Trump into a victory that would rebuke the White House and embolden Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Feeding on opposition to Trump, Ossoff raised more than $8.3 million from all over the country as he tries to flip a seat that has been held by a Republican since 1979. Leaders of both parties agree the race serves as an early electoral barometer for Trump’s effect on other contests.
With all of the votes counted in Cobb and DeKalb counties and partial returns from Fulton County, Ossoff hovered right at the majority threshold required to win an 18-candidate primary outright. Republican Karen Handel was in a distant second, but comfortably ahead of her Republican competitors.
A spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp confirmed that Fulton officials were having difficulty reading memory cards from voting machines. That left uncounted tens of thousands of votes that were likely to push Ossoff below 50 percent.
Ossoff addressed his supporters a few minutes before midnight, hinting at the likelihood of a runoff, though he did not mention his likely opponent.
“No matter what the outcome is tonight, whether we take it all or whether we fight on, we have defied the odds … shattered expectations,” he said, a nod to his campaign that blossomed as a nexus of the Trump opposition movement.
Trump himself declared victory, dismissing any possibility that he’s been a drag for his party.
On Twitter, where he’s attacked Ossoff over the last two days, the president wrote, “Despite outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, Big ‘R’ win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!”
Republicans nationally and in Georgia acknowledged before polls opened that Ossoff would top the slate of Republicans, Democrats and independents who appeared together on one primary ballot. The question was whether Ossoff could win outright to succeed Tom Price, who resigned to become Trump’s health secretary.
Trump did not perform as well as other Republicans last November in the Georgia district, an affluent, well-educated swath filled with the kind of voters Democrats need if they hope to reclaim a House majority next year.
Republicans currently hold a 238-193 advantage in the chamber.
Ossoff would be a “disaster” in Congress, Trump declared earlier Tuesday on social media and mocked Ossoff for living outside the district. A day earlier, the president blasted Ossoff, without naming him, as a “super liberal.”
Despite Trump’s Twitter barrage, the White House insisted the race isn’t about the president. “I wouldn’t use the word referendum,” said spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, adding that Trump simply wants a Republican to win.
An investigative filmmaker, Ossoff’s campaign finance haul dwarfed what any Republican candidate has spent on the contest. He used it energize liberals and younger voters, while also aiming for disaffected independents and moderate Republicans.
Ossoff has pledged to fight Trump when he “embarrasses” the country. But he’s also said he would “work with anybody in Washington who respects your tax dollars.” He’s decried “wasteful spending” and promised to be a “bipartisan problem solver.”
That’s all a nod to the Republicans and independents he needed to win — whether Tuesday or in a runoff.
It still wasn’t enough for voters like Matt West, a 45-year-old financial planner from Roswell. “He lives outside the district, he’s a Democrat, and I just don’t believe that he’d stand up to (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi if the district wanted him to,” West said.
West said he voted for the Republican Handel.
Republican groups ran a blitz of ads trying to tie Ossoff to Pelosi; a political action committee backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan has spent more than $2 million on those and other attacks.
As for residency, Ossoff acknowledges that he lives just south of the district, in Atlanta, so that his girlfriend is close to her work at Emory University’s medical complex.
Whatever the outcome, the race highlights Republican candidates’ challenge in dealing with the president: Trump still engenders intense loyalty among his core supporters, but alienates many independents and some Republicans.
Handel has maintained distance from the president, rarely discussing him unless asked.
National Republicans say any of the top GOP candidates could defeat Ossoff in a second round. They predict conservative voters would be energized in a Republican vs. Democrat scenario.
“Republican voters are not going to sit by and let this district go to a Democrat,” Handel said at one of her final campaign stops.
Associated Press reporter Catherine Lucey in Washington and Kathleen Foody in Alpharetta, Georgia, contributed. Follow Barrow at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .
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