Georgia special election: 4 takeaways

Karen Handel is pictured.

Karen Handel addresses supporters gathered at Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina on June 20 in Atlanta, Georgia. | Getty

The $50 million race set records, but it also foreshadows an expensive 2018.

The most expensive, closely scrutinized House race ever is over — but its effects are going to ricochet throughout the political landscape for another year and a half.

Both parties spent the $50 million race for Georgia’s 6th District trying not only to win the seat but to test strategies, messages and ideas. And while Republican Karen Handel’s win over Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday was ultimately a local event, it told us a lot about the national political environment — especially in the House of Representatives, where Democrats hope to challenge for the majority in 2018.

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The drawn-out race for Georgia’s 6th District highlighted several major trends already at play in the 2018 elections, even though November 2018 is over a year away. Here are POLITICO’s four big takeaways from the district and Handel’s win.

Republicans’ favorite Democrat

A lot has changed in the last seven years — in culture, in technology and especially in politics. There is at least one constant, though: House Republicans continue basing their campaigns around House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi was the centerpiece of the multi-million dollar GOP campaign against Ossoff, starting in late March when the Democrat became a threat to capture the Republican seat. The young Democrat was a first-time candidate, so he didn’t come into the race with a voting record for Republicans to attack. But Republicans used the specter of Pelosi to activate their base, which was not fully engaged in the race a few months ago.

“Nancy Pelosi and her allies are pouring millions into his campaign,” a National Republican Congressional Committee ad intoned in early April. It was just one of many times the GOP used the California Democrat, from numerous TV ads to Handel’s attack lines against Ossoff in their televised debates.

Heading into the Georgia campaign, some Republicans were privately worried that their Pelosi attacks had lost steam since the GOP used them to great effect in taking back the House in 2010. But the party won’t think about abandoning that line after notching such a hard-fought win in Georgia.

Both parties are pouring money into the House

The candidates and parties spent well over $50 million the Georgia special election, nearly twice as much as the previous record high for a House race. It was a financial anomaly — but it was also a leading indicator of serious money pouring into districts around the country.

Many of the same online donors who directed over $23 million into Ossoff’s campaign have also been donating online to Democratic “nominee funds” in Republican-held districts. The liberal website Daily Kos has raised over $1.5 million into escrow funds for the eventual Democratic nominees in 24 Republican-held districts; Swing Left, another progressive organization, has raised $1.7 million into funds for the eventual opponents of 35 Republican House members who voted for the GOP health care bill.

Those numbers will climb significantly over the next year, and they demonstrate that Ossoff is not the only Democrat pulling in big money from small donors online. Many Republican incumbents will face better-funded opponents than ever in 2018.

The good news for them is that many incumbents have money socked away already, and Republican groups have plenty of resources to defend them. The National Republican Congressional Committee raised $52.5 million in the first five months of 2018, a huge jump from the $35.5 million it raised in the same period in 2016. A handful of Republican megadonors have already poured more than $10 million into the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main House GOP super PAC (most of which went into Georgia).

Democrats are still working out how to handle Trump on the trail

Ossoff launched his campaign with the stated objective of “making Trump furious,” but as his campaign got competitive and Ossoff got a real shot at winning the seat during the April primary, something happened: Ossoff stopped mentioning Trump.

It was a conscious choice by Ossoff and his campaign. Trump is not popular, but also not overwhelmingly unpopular, in the district. And with the president already on the mind of every voter in the district (and the nation), Ossoff’s team didn’t want to come across as lecturing or shaming moderate and conservative voters who might have voted for Trump — and whose support Ossoff needed to get across the finish line in a high-turnout, GOP-leaning district. Instead, Ossoff tried to earn their votes by focusing on the federal deficit and business development.

It’s the opposite tack that Democrats took in 2016, when they made virtually every moment of every race about Trump and got little to show for it. The party specifically wants to focus on “pocketbook issues.” But there are Democrats who disagree, saying that their party ought to focus its campaigns on the main event in politics.

“I think they should be wading into the argument that sends a wake-up call that Trump’s off on the wrong foot,” said Jeff Hauser, a Democratic strategist who is currently the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which watches executive-branch appointments. “I thank there’s a way to sell that message that’s not overly strident. Even in districts that aren’t blue districts, you can lean into the argument that the reason you want Ossoff is to get Trump more focused on doing people’s business than in picking fights.”

Watch out for open House seats in 2018

Despite their defeat, Democrats are touting the fact that dozens of Republicans in the House of Representatives hold bluer districts than Georgia’s 6th. But that discounts a huge factor that helped Democrats make the Georgia district competitive: It was an open seat.

After all, then-Rep. Tom Price carried this district with more than 60 percent of the vote in November, even as Trump surprisingly carried the longtime GOP bastion by fewer than 2 percentage points.

“Washington is as unpopular as it has ever been before, but the dirty little secret is that people still love their incumbents. If Tom Price were still sitting in this seat, he’d probably be cruising to reelection in 2018,” said Ken Spain, a partner at CGCN group and a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “But the fact it’s an open seat changes the dynamic significantly. … Open seats are susceptible to shifts in the environment.”

That’s exactly what happened in Georgia, where the results looked much more like Trump’s presidential showing than past local GOP campaigns. It’s part of the reason why Democratic candidates have flooded into the race for one Miami-area Republican House seat and stayed away from the other. Hillary Clinton carried both in 2016, but GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring from one seat, while GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo will be defending a strong 2016 win in his district, even though Trump lost it by a wide margin.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz is leaving his rural Minnesota district open to run for governor. Trump just carried the district handily even though it went for former President Barack Obama twice, and Republicans are expected to make a strong challenge for the seat in 2018.

No one knows what the national political landscape will look like in November 2018, or whether Trump will be as unpopular as he is now, but it’s clear that open districts will be most susceptible to following the national trends. Republican and Democratic operatives alike will spend the summer and fall keeping a close eye on which (and how many) House incumbents decide to call it quits and leave their districts open.

NRCC chairman bullish after special election victories — for now

Republican Steve Stivers speaks to supporters after defeating Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy in the 15th Congressional District during the Ohio Republican Party's election night celebration Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

“I’d love to see where their momentum is at 0 and 4,” Steve Stivers said when asked what the race said about Democrats’ prospects of taking the House in 2018. | AP Photo

House Republicans have one question for their Democratic counterparts: What wave?

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers took a brief victory lap in a Tuesday night interview with POLITICO after locking down the last of four House special elections for his party.

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Just minutes after the Associated Press called former Rep. Tom Price’s Georgia seat for Republican Karen Handel, the Ohio lawmaker noted that Democrats itching to retake the House in 2018 desperately needed a victory Tuesday. Millions of dollars later — Democrat Jon Ossoff’s was the most well-funded candidate in House history — they didn’t get it, he boasted.

“I’d love to see where their momentum is at 0 and 4,” Stivers said when asked what the race said about Democrats’ prospects of taking the House in 2018. “They poured $33 million into this seat and came away short. That just goes to show you that when you spend $33 million but you talk about issues that the American people don’t believe, you can’t win.”

He later added: “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” to keep the House in the midterms, “but I think we’ve proven ourselves pretty solidly at this point, by being outspent by $10 million, having them throw the kitchen sink at us, and we still win.”

Still, it’s not all good news for the NRCC, and Stivers knows his campaign arm will have to put up a fight to maintain their grip on the House. Just last week in close-door conference, GOP leaders warned their colleagues that average mid-term turnover in the first term of a new presidency averages about 32 seats. That would cost them their majority.

What’s more, while Republicans won all four of the congressional districts districts vacated after Trump plucked GOP congressmen for administration posts, each race was closer than usually — and each cost millions to protect. Those districts are typically considered Republican strongholds. But Democrats were able to harness widespread anti-President Donald Trump sentiments to churn those races into nail-biters.

Democratic candidates in the special elections were also roughly 20 points closer to their Republican foes, in terms of margins, than they had been last year.

The left’s ability to energize the base was on display Tuesday, when Republican Ralph Norman barely won the South Carolina special election by a shocking 3-point margin. That same district sent Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney to Washington to represent them for years — one of the most conservative members in the House.

Still, Democrats around the nation were hoping for a win. They know that if they want a shot at taking back the House, they’re going to need to turn highly educated, anti-Trump GOP districts like Price’s, blue.

Stivers is taking solace in the fact that they haven’t. He says it’s because their candidates are too far left.

“[Democrats] are outside the mainstream of the American public in districts they need to win, like Georgia 6, where not only did we win but we actually expanded the margin tonight over the presidential election in 2016,” he said.

Stivers said the Democratic strategy of trying to make every House race a referendum on Trump also isn’t working. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to tie vulnerable House Republican candidates to Trump in 2016; most of them, however outran Trump — even in districts Hillary Clinton carried.

Stivers said Democrats are using the same tactic now and, once again, failing: Handel beat Ossoff by a larger margin (about 4 points) than Trump beat Hillary Clinton in that district in 2016 (about 1 point, down from Mitt Romney’s 24-point margin in 2012).

Asked what the special elections said about Trump’s toxicity for the House GOP conference, Stivers said he sees none: “[Democrats] like to say that, but the question is: Do they have any examples of where they can show it’s true? … I don’t see any evidence. … In four special elections, we’re 4 and 0 and they’re 0 and 4. So, you know, at some point you have to actually have facts to back up what you say. You can’t just make stuff up.”

Just 24 hours ago, Republicans were fretting the massive war chest Ossoff built. On Tuesday night, Stivers pointed to it as point of pride, or a battle wound, noting that Republicans were even able to withstand such massive spending numbers pouring in from across the nation.

“You can’t have New York and San Francisco money and ideas win in Georgia or Kansas or Montana or Texas or almost anywhere else,” he said. “They thought they could take national money and pour it into Georgia and change an election. … but you can’t change the fabric of society with $30 million.”

Privately, Republicans are trying to assure themselves that Democrats won’t be able to replicate the war chest they built for Ossoff in Georgia for every Democratic challenger in the 2018 midterms. Still, Stivers and GOP leaders have been telling Republicans to get their fundraising numbers up as soon as possible, just in case.

Lessons from the 2017 elections

ATLANTA — Five months into Donald Trump’s presidency, five closely-watched races. And Republicans aren’t any worse off for all the chaos, controversy and low poll ratings that have defined Trump’s tenure.

After special election wins in Kansas, Montana, and finally the most expensive House race ever in Georgia on Tuesday, the GOP ends the opening stretch of Trump’s presidency confident that Democrats’ plans of a grand comeback have yet to get off the ground.

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Reeling after their loss in Atlanta’s suburbs, Democrats are nevertheless claiming moral victory and reminding themselves to remain confident in their consistent over-performances in the House races compared to 2016 results — and in the strong candidates produced by the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial primaries.

With 2018’s midterm elections looming, here are POLITICO’s seven takeaways from the first five months — and first five high-profile races — of the Trump era:

If the House is in play, Democrats still need to prove it

Republicans acknowledge that the 2018 elections will be a difficult grind and their House majority may be vulnerable. But for all the grassroots energy and torrid fundraising, Democrats still haven’t proved they can actually win.

After swinging the vote roughly 20 points to the left but still coming short in heavily Republican districts in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, and Georgia, Democrats have announced a wide range of potentially strong candidates in districts all across the country — some in areas where Trump’s unpopularity has changed the landscape, and others in long-time Democratic target zones.

But the repeated special election losses are taking a toll: Democratic disappointment is acute, particularly after Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff’s defeat to Karen Handel.

For now, the Democratic plan looks like a slightly more aggressive version of the standard playbook for a new president’s first midterm, when the party in control of the White House traditionally loses ground. But with both parties still working out how to position themselves with respect to the White House, operatives on both sides will closely study what it would actually take for Democrats to win the 24 seats they’d need to win back control of the House.

“We not only have to point out why Donald Trump is abysmal for America, we have to point out what we stand for as Democrats,” warned Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez.

But, he said, “Look at the Georgia race, and Tom Price won that [seat] by 24 points, a Democrat hasn’t won the Sixth [District] in Georgia in over 30 years. None of these races, in theory, should have been close because they’re solid red districts, whether it was Kansas, whether it was South Carolina, whether it was Montana.”

Republican candidates need a personal Trump strategy

Running for Montana’s at large seat last month, Republican Greg Gianforte barely went 10 minutes without mentioning Trump, whose stickers, hats, and banners adorned the eventual winner’s events for months. Handel, running in a suburban seat, took another path: she went to great lengths to avoid the White House. She didn’t mention the president’s name once during her pair of election eve speeches on Monday, and it worked for her.

If the early days of 2017 have taught Republican candidates anything, it’s that they need a strategy to deal with their mercurial president, and they need to stick to it.

While the president’s popularity fluctuates from state to state and district to district, the Republican candidates who have had the hardest times have been the ones whose posture toward the president have been the vaguest. Virginia’s Ed Gillespie struggled mightily against Corey Stewart, for example, after Gillespie talked tepidly about the White House and Stewart embraced it wholeheartedly.

The establishment isn’t dead yet

One of the most surprising results of all this year: not one of the elections featured a Trump-like surprise outcome.

Virginia came closest, when Stewart nearly took down Gillespie. But in race after race and in both parties, the party leadership’s pick prevailed in their primary, suggesting that the political upheaval that marked 2016 may not be replicable.

That isn’t necessarily sitting well with party activists on either side. Stewart, for one, has refused to publicly support Gillespie.

On the Democratic side, where party rifts are front-and-center, some progressives have used the establishment’s victories as evidence that the party needs fixing — and as explanations for Democratic losses.

“Tonight’s result is disheartening to everyone who volunteered to help out another Democrat in Congress. The unforced errors by the party leadership and the campaign present an important learning opportunity for everyone who wants to kick Republicans out of power in 2018,” said Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy For America, in a statement on Tuesday night. “Defeating Republicans in districts that they have traditionally held requires doing something drastically different than establishment Democrats have done before — specifically, running on a bold progressive vision and investing heavily in direct voter contact to expand the electorate. That’s what it will take to win districts like this one in 2018 and take back the House. The same, tired centrist Democratic playbook that has come up short cycle after cycle will not suffice.”

Democrats still don’t have a message

Much of the Democratic Party’s energy in 2017 is driven by hatred of the White House, and the president’s dismal approval ratings have given them hope that an anti-Trump message will carry them close to a House majority in 2018.

But the party is still struggling to find a clear and convincing message that can break through in these races, after Bernie Sanders-style populist Rob Quist fell short in Montana and the moderate Ossoff came only slightly closer in Georgia. Anti-Trump sentiment from base voters wasn’t enough to push them over the edge in districts that also contain plenty of moderates, and Democratic frustration with the inability to connect has started to bubble over.

That message was clear from progressive activists exasperated by the result in Georgia.

“In the closing weeks of the race, Ossoff and the DCCC missed an opportunity to make Republicans’ attack on health care the key issue, and instead attempted to portray Ossoff as a centrist, focusing on cutting spending and coming out [in] opposition to Medicare for All,” said executive director Anna Galland in a Tuesday night statement. “This approach did not prove a recipe for electoral success. Democrats will not win back power merely by serving as an alternative to Trump and Republicans.”

Health care isn’t a silver bullet — not yet at least

There was no greater indication of health care’s political salience — and combustibility — than when an exasperated Gianforte assaulted a reporter trying to ask him about Obamacare repeal’s effects just hours before he won his race in Montana last month.

To many Democrats, outbursts like that and polls showing that Republican’s American Health Care Act is deeply unpopular suggest that turning 2018 into a health care referendum might be their best bet. But even as Senate Republicans rush to get a vote through on their version of the bill, that hypothesis hasn’t really been tested.

In the closing days of Georgia’s race, the repeal effort was hardly front-and-center, and other issues dominated the races in Montana and Kansas. Furthermore, few of the candidates’ ads focused entirely on the issue.

That suggests the battle lines are still being drawn — and that Democrats are still figuring out the best way to leverage an issue that Republicans have spent years talking about.

As Republicans see it, that’s a symptom of Democratic leaders’ inability to coalesce around a single message ahead of the midterms: “What we’ve learned so far this year, I would argue, is you can define a Democrat as somebody who complains about the president, wants to raise your taxes, and loses elections,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC. “The Democratic Party has no agenda, has no ideas.”

The Trump-era battleground: Suburbia

In 2016, Trump’s weakness among highly educated women voters, particularly in suburban areas, led to a diminished performance in some historically Republican areas. If the results of this year’s races and the expected top 2018 battleground districts are any indication, more affluent suburbs may be moving to the front of the political stage.

The competitive race in Atlanta’s leafy suburbs, where Trump won by just one point in 2016 after Republican nominees had carried it easily for years, was just one piece of the story. In both Virginia and New Jersey — states with large suburban populations — Democratic turnout surged in those areas.

Many of the GOP-held House races expected to draw the most attention in 2018 are in similarly situated areas in places like California, Texas, and New Jersey. Democrats have yet to prove anti-Trump fervor is enough to swing districts where the president is viewed skeptically at best — like in metro Atlanta — but at least they know the location of his soft spot.

“There’s no doubt that the president’s numbers in these places are bad, and there was a swing away from him in the [2016] election. It wasn’t enough to make up for the rural places but it was real, so the million-dollar question is how far Democrats can push that,” said Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch. “Can they push what happened in 2016 even further? We don’t know, but certainly there’s opportunity there.”

The GOP base is still with Trump

Much has been made of Trump’s historically low approval ratings. But he remains popular among base Republicans, and far more popular than any alternative at the moment.

In her suburban district, Handel avoided saying the president’s name altogether most days. But she didn’t entirely shun him either. What worked for her was an anti-Democratic message that was enough to fire up Republicans who trickled into her events wearing Trump hats and buttons. And though she didn’t even say the word “Trump” on election night, her mention of “The President of the United States” drew the loudest cheers of all.

Handel’s victory on the back of big Republican turnout — combined with strong wins from more overtly pro-Trump candidates like Gianforte in Montana and South Carolina’s Ralph Norman — is simply more evidence that the GOP is nowhere near ready to break with the president.

“In 2016, Trump — according to the Democrats — was going to cost Republicans the House, and [he] didn’t,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers. the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Now, in 2018, the Trump presidency was going to cost Republicans the House. And in four special elections, we’re 4-0 and they’re 0-4.”

Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

Republican Karen Handel wins special election for hotly contested Georgia House seat

Democrats came up short Tuesday night in their costly bid to wrest control of a longtime GOP congressional seat in the suburbs north of Atlanta, losing a race the party had hoped would showcase deep Republican vulnerability in the Trump era.

Republican Karen Handel, the former secretary of state of Georgia, defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff, 52% to 48%. The contest had turned into the costliest House race in history, as Democratic activists nationwide sent a surge of donations to political newcomer Ossoff in an attempt to turn blue a district Republicans have controlled since the Carter administration.

The seat was last held by Tom Price, who vacated it to become President Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary. While the close election result is sobering for the Republican Party in a conservative district it customarily wins by double digits, the victory helps the party avert – for now – potentially much more damaging fallout for the White House and Republicans in Congress.

“It’s a huge disappointment for Democrats, who really did put all their eggs in this one basket, feeling as though it was the kind of district – upscale, higher education, higher income voters that went only narrowly for Trump – that if there’s any movement nationally, it should show up,” said Stuart Rothenberg, a veteran nonpartisan elections analyst.

Democrats may also be regretting that they invested so heavily in the Georgia district but paid little attention to the other congressional special election that took place Tuesday, in the South Carolina district vacated by White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

Republicans prevailed there – but by a substantially slimmer margin than had been anticipated. In a district Democratic leaders had largely written off as unwinnable, Republican Ralph Norman, a former state representative, edged out his Democratic rival, Archie Parnell, just 51% to 48%.

But it was the race in Georgia where most of the attention had been focused Tuesday. Among the most concerned about the outcome was Trump himself, who had been attacking Ossoff on Twitter since Monday. Had the seat slipped away from Republicans, Trump was threatened with losing his grip on anxious GOP lawmakers in Congress.

“Donald Trump can breathe a lot easier tomorrow with the knowledge that they came after Republicans hard, with millions of dollars, and Republicans still won,” said Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Trump congratulated Handel over Twitter, but before he did, he tweeted a thank you to Fox News for declaring the special election was a “huge win” for him and the GOP.

Handel’s victory suggests that despite an erosion of support precipitated by the tumult in Washington, Republicans are not seeing a mass defection of their base. Vulnerable GOP candidates in moderate districts who may be contemplating distancing themselves from the president were probably reassured somewhat by the results Tuesday.

It was a tough night for Democrats. They are desperate for a win, and despite making every effort to keep the expectations of activists measured, failure to notch this victory after all the effort and money poured into the race is likely to lead to a fresh round of soul-searching and a renewed debate over the path the party needs to take to start winning again.

The Democrats’ ability to recruit top-tier candidates for competitive – and even long-shot – congressional seats is undermined by the loss.

Balloting Tuesday was complicated by torrential rain in the area, creating additional worries for the candidates as they scrambled to get out the vote. Strategists pondered how the weather might hurt one side or the other, but it was impossible to gauge in this off-season special election with unprecedented spending, in which all the usual turnout assumptions did not necessarily apply.

Democrats saw an opening in the region after Trump won the district by less than 2 percentage points. They were hoping the effort would chart a path for Democrats nationwide to rebuild their power base in onetime GOP strongholds such as Orange County.

Some $60 million was spent in the Georgia election by the candidates and an assortment of ideological and political outside groups. Ossoff was an unknown even in his district a few months ago, but he surged to national recognition after an endorsement from civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta moved progressives to activate a wildly successful digital fundraising effort on his behalf.

Handel is a former executive at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure charity for breast cancer. She played a major role in that organization’s decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood — and became a favorite of the right along the way.

In April, the cash infusion for Ossoff, the eagerness of Democrats to consolidate around him and widespread voter anxiety in the district over Trump contributed to a surprisingly strong showing in an open primary. Ossoff won 48% of the vote, just 2 points shy of winning the race outright. Handel split the conservative vote with a few other well-funded Republicans, winning 18%.

But some analysts say that all the money that flooded into the district may have ultimately annoyed voters and played to Handel’s favor.

“If Democrats put this much energy into the district, some Republicans are going to be so turned off that they decide to turn out, even if they hadn’t in the first round,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst with the Cook Political Report.

Particularly invested in the race had been Californians. More Californians contributed to it than donors from any other state, including Georgia. References to San Francisco played front and center in GOP campaign attacks. Liberal Hollywood celebrities lent their star power.

Handel repeatedly made an issue out of Ossoff’s California money. The Democrat raised nearly $5 for every $1 Handel raised, pushing her to rely heavily on millions of dollars in spending from outside conservative groups, which poured money into the race at more than double the rate of outside liberal groups.

But Ossoff also helped drive the narrative that he was an outsider by choosing to live outside the district. Though he grew up in the district, he is now a resident of Atlanta, where his girlfriend is finishing medical school. Trump has been attacking the candidate as an outsider.

“Democrat Jon Ossoff, who wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security, doesn’t even live in district,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. He did much the same on Monday.

After her victory, Handel struck a conciliatory note to Democrats. “We may have some different beliefs, but we are part of one community. I will work … hard to win your confidence,” she said.

Ossoff said Democrats had put up an impressive fight. “We showed the world that in places where no one thought it was even possible to fight, we could fight,” he said. “This is not the outcome any of us would hope for. But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us.”

GOP operatives in Orange Country watched the race nervously. The demographics in that longtime Republican bastion of Southern California in many ways resemble those of the Georgia district. Democrats have even more momentum in Orange County, which voted for Hillary Clinton in November. The four House Republicans representing the county are among the lawmakers most aggressively targeted for defeat in 2018 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The committee has moved its West Coast command center, long located in Washington, D.C., out to Irvine.

Political strategists are loath to read too much into the results of special elections, which take place in the off-season and tend to get wrapped up in local issues that don’t necessarily apply to the broader electorate.

“Right now we’re grasping at every straw, every special election, every poll that comes out,” said Rothenberg. “That doesn’t mean a year from now the situation will be identical in this district or anywhere else.”

But amid all the national attention the race received, there is no denying the loss was a dispiriting blow to Democrats.

Halper and Barabak reported from Washington D.C.; Jarvie reported from Sandy Springs, Ga.

Follow me: @evanhalper


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8:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction and statements from the candidates.

7:20 p.m.: This article was updated after the race was called for Handel.

6:35 p.m.: This article was updated with results from a separate race in South Carolina.

5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with early returns.

4:10 p.m.: This article was updated after polls closed.

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with information about how the weather is affecting voting.

This article was originally published at 8:55 a.m.

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