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Republicans Hold Georgia House Seat, Dashing Democrats' Hopes

Republican Karen Handel, projected winner of Georgia's 6th Congressional District, addresses supporters gathered at Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina earlier on Tuesday in Atlanta.

Updated at 10:45 p.m. ET

Republican Karen Handel has won the costly and closely watched special congressional election in Georgia's 6th District, a blow to Democratic hopes of pulling off an upset in a district that President Trump only narrowly carried last year.

With 81 percent of the vote in, the Associated Press called the race for Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state, over Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and former congressional staffer. Handel was leading by about 5 points, 52 percent to 47.5 percent.

The more than four-month-long battle smashed House race spending records after the candidates as well as GOP and Democratic outside groups poured in more than $50 million combined, slamming each other on the airwaves. Handel will succeed former Rep. Tom Price, whom Trump tapped as his secretary of Health and Human Services earlier this year.

The race became framed by some as a referendum on Trump and his agenda, and the win may ease GOP fears — for now — that its base wouldn't stay engaged heading into the 2018 midterms.

Democrats badly needed a win somewhere after falling just short in a handful of other special elections — including another one on Tuesday in South Carolina's 5th District that was much closer than expected. In that contest, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell by just about 3 points to succeed Trump's Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

The Palmetto State race received little national attention or money compared to Georgia or other special elections, but the narrow win compared to the 19 points Trump won the district by in November is a major swing. Similarly, there was a 20 point swing in a Kansas special election and 15 point shift in Montana last month.

Despite all the money spent on the Georgia race, Ossoff may end up falling below Clinton's numbers in the 6th District. Democrats have so far been unable to prove that they can turn resistance against Trump — with marches and protests — into actual victories the ballot box. The Georgia race was their best shot to do that, and they fell just short.

As that anger with Trump rose across the country, Ossoff became a somewhat unlikely vehicle for the resistance to the president and the GOP agenda, attracting support from many people who said they were shell-shocked by Hillary Clinton's loss in November and who wanted to engage in politics. The first-time candidate raised $23 million for his campaign, but most of that came from outside of Georgia from liberal enclaves like New York and California. Volunteers from around the country flocked to help him on the ground, too, and with that money he was able to build an impressive ground game.

In the end, though, it wasn't enough, and the longtime GOP-lean of the district was too much for Ossoff to overcome. This is a seat Republicans have held for decades, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even represented areas now in the current 6th District.

Still, it is the type of district Democrats need to do well in come 2018 to flip the 24 seats they need to win back the House. There are 23 districts currently held by Republicans which Hillary Clinton carried last November, and some of them share similar characteristics to Georgia's 6th District — rapidly growing, diverse district that are well-educated. And even though this seat has been in GOP hands for decades, and Price routinely won re-election easily, this wasn't Trump Country in 2016. The president only narrowly carried the district by just over 1 point; in 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney won it by 23 points.

While Ossoff successfully harnessed the anger against Trump to fuel his rise and his fundraising success, he also didn't make it the focal point of his campaign. Some of his ads early on ahead of the April all-party primary — where he got 48 percent of the vote in an 18-candidate field — talked about taking on the president. But later spots focused on cutting government waste and working to attract more tech jobs to the area. Those aren't typically the top Democratic talking points, and often he didn't even mentioned his party ID.

The outside money in the race became one of the most potent attacks by Handel, who was previously the Fulton County Commission chairwoman, the most populous area of the district that ultimately delivered decisive margins to help her finish off Ossoff. Handel emphasized her experience and decades of public service, tying Ossoff to national Democrats and pointing out that he didn't even live in the district. Ossoff grew up in the district but now lives just outside the border near Emory University, while his fiancee finishes medical school.

Handel also never fully embraced or distanced herself from Trump. The president held a fundraiser for her early on, and sent out tweets on her behalf in the final days of the race, including Tuesday night. But other surrogates like Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Pence were the ones who came to provide on-the-ground support.

The argument made by even Trump allies, such as Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the state's former governor, over the weekend is that even if you don't like Trump, don't hold that against Handel.

"Some Republicans may even be turned off by our president," Perdue acknowledged at a rally Saturday.

And, he seemed to admit, a loss could have be damaging for the Trump administration's agenda: "This is a harbinger of national politics. And the world is looking; the nation is looking."

Ultimately, it could be a good harbinger for the GOP going forward, and may provide a boost for them on their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, with Senate Republicans expected to unveil their health care bill on Thursday. Handel supported the GOP House version, the American Health Care Act, while Ossoff opposed it. But neither made it a major issue in the contest.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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