ATLANTA — Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just short Tuesday of capturing a House seat in a longtime conservative stronghold in Georgia, serving a reminder to Republicans of President Donald Trump’s unpopularity.
Ossoff received 48.1 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent he needed to win outright.
He and the other top vote-getter — Republican candidate Karen Handel, who received 19.8 percent — will face off in a runoff election in June, a likely uphill climb for Democrats now that the Republican vote in a reliably GOP district will be consolidated behind one candidate.
The hotly contested race carried major implications as a gauge of the president’s popularity — and Trump himself seemed to grasp the high stakes, playing a direct role in its closing days.
Democrats saw it as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Trump and congressional Republicans fearful that he could drag down the party in the 2018 midterms — while also delivering a psychic boost to an energized progressive base.
They nearly pulled it off. It was a strong showing for the Democrats in an unusual “jungle primary” in a district Mitt Romney won by 23 points in 2012, and where Republican Rep. Tom Price was re-elected with nearly 62 percent of the vote in 2016 before being named Trump’s health and human services secretary.
“There is no doubt that this is already a victory for the ages,” Ossoff told supporters late Tuesday night. “That no matter what the outcome is tonight — whether we take it all or whether we fight on — we have survived the odds. We have shattered expectations. We are changing the world. And your voices are going to ring out across this state and across this country.”
Progressive activists led by the liberal blog Daily Kos pumped $8.3 million into Ossoff’s campaign largely because it represented their best odds out of four special elections for previously Republican-held House seats of flipping one and sending a message.
Trump erased any doubt the contest was all about him when he waded into the race at the last minute.
Trump recorded a robocall to Republicans in the district and attacked Ossoff on Twitter repeatedly on Monday and Tuesday. The president tweeted after midnight that he was “Glad to be of help!” — even though the district was competitive largely because of Trump’s unpopularity with the white-collar white voters who make up much of its voting base.
Handel said on Twitter Wednesday morning that Trump had called her.
The near-death experience for Republicans — on the heels of one a week earlier in Kansas, where Democrats nearly flipped a deep-red district — could still have the effect of leading GOP lawmakers in competitive states and districts to seek distance from the president, making it even more difficult for Trump to advance his agenda on Capitol Hill.
In Tuesday’s results, Democrats saw more evidence of a playing field for the 2018 midterm elections that has drastically expanded — and given the party’s 10 senators up for re-election in states that Trump won some breathing room.
“To me, what’s amazing is that we continue to see this level shift across the country, a 20-point swing, that puts about 123 Republican seats potentially in play,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas said.
“At that point, very little is off the map, and getting the 24 seats we need to take back the House is suddenly a real possibility, GOP gerrymander or not,” Moulitsas said.
“It also potentially puts the Senate in play, while certainly protecting our endangered red-state incumbents. All of this, and we’re still in Trump’s supposed ‘honeymoon’ period.”