All eyes were on suburban Atlanta Tuesday as Georgia's sixth congressional held a special House election Democrats hoped would send a message to President Trump while Republicans worked to keep their grip on a seat that has been theirs for 38 years.
Republicans appear to have done well enough to force the race into a runoff. But the Democratic candidate finished first, nearly 30 points aheadof the leading Republican. Democrats declared a moral victory Tuesday night and are refusing to write off their chances in the final round of voting in June.
Shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m. Eastern time, Democrat Jon Ossoff zoomed out to an even greater than expected early lead But as Election Day voting results trickled in, that lead steadily dropped. Ossoff remained well ahead of the Republican competition while hovering around the 50 percent threshold needed to win the House seat outright.
Technical difficulties delayed results from Fulton County, which finally pushed the Democrat below 50 percent once resolved.
"While we await the final election results this evening, our first-place finish is a remarkable achievement that many said would never even happen," Ossoff campaign manager Keenan Pontoni said in a statement. "It's clear that Jon has incredible energy and support behind him that will only grow whether we win tonight or in June."
If the results hold, Ossoff will meet former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff. Handel received less than 20 percent of the vote as of early Wednesday morning, but was well ahead of the other Republican candidates.
Pre-election polls showed Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide, ahead in the race to replace Republican Tom Price, who resigned to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services under Trump. Democrats have spent heavily to make the election a referendum on Trump and other Republican leaders in Washington.
A strong finish in this Republican-leaning district would boost Democratic optimism and suggest GOP congressional majorities could be at risk in 2018. Even if Ossoff were to ultimately lose, it would help Democrats raise money and recruit better candidates in other races.
That's why liberal groups moved quickly to declare victory, even though they conceded a recount was likely. MoveOn.org told supporters the outcome was a "huge blow to Donald Trump" and crediting Ossoff "with a first-place finish that will give him much-needed momentum for a likely runoff election in June."
"Jon Ossoff's first-place finish in ruby-red Georgia shows the huge opportunities for progressive candidates across the country — from Tom Perriello for Governor in Virginia to Rob Quist for Congress in Montana," said Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green. "Ossoff showed what's possible when a campaign taps into the huge grassroots energy of the Resistance, and the PCCC will be funneling that energy into Perriello's campaign for governor with an official endorsement and grassroots fundraising this week."
Friends of the Earth Action described Ossoff's strong first place finish as a "landslide."
"Tonight's powerful result will build momentum toward electing progressive candidates across the country," said the group's political strategist Ben Schreiber. "We hope tonight's landslide will encourage the Democratic Party to support progressive candidates that are capable of defeating Trump and his enablers."
Trump himself took credit for forcing another round of voting, calling the likely runoff a big "'R' win."
The main Republican candidates were Handel, businessman and former councilman Bob Gray; businessman and former state legislator Dan Moody and state Sen. Judson Hill. Moody was endorsed by Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.
"My gut still says Ossoff performs only slightly better than the Dem against Isakson did in 2016," said local Republican operative Charlie Harper. "This is a GOP district. Nine million dollars "may move the needle a bit and the dynamics of a special election are always screwy, but for the Republicans this election isn't about Trump, pro or con."
National Democrats naturally see it differently. This district has been under Republican control for 37 years, when future House Speaker Newt Gingrich was still elected. Hillary Clinton is the only recent Democrat to break 40 percent here. If Ossoff is able to replicate that, Democrats say it will show suburban Republican-leaners who abandoned Trump last year are continuing to defect.
Price won re-election with 62 percent of the vote in 2016. Trump, however, carried the district over Clinton by just 1.5 percentage points.
If Ossoff's performance is closer to Clinton's than Price's Democratic opponent, Democrats believe it will bode well for their 2018 candidates running in suburban districts filled with college-educated voters who normally vote Republican but disapprove of Trump. This will be true, they argue, even if Ossoff comes up short in June.
Republicans are casting the race as must-win for the Democrats, noting that they came up short in Kansas last week.
"Ultimately the objective is to win races — not just finish close and chalk it up as a moral victory," said a national GOP operative. "The Dems put forward a young, far-left candidate who appeals to their base voters and progressive money groups. If they can't win with this model now in an open seat, with all they've invested, does it portend more failures for the Democratic Party in 2018?"
Once the primary is over, the Republican vote will no longer be fractured and the party will have the benefit of time.
"I just don't see GOP voters listening to two months of Democratic media saturation and deciding to stay home and cede a seat," Harper said.
"Ossoff had the Dem field to himself and I fully expect he'll have raised $10 million by tomorrow. He's hit a ceiling on his vote," said another Republican operative. "Or to put it another way, I think you can make an argument that Ossoff has a better chance of winning the seat in the primary than the run-off."
This theory will now be tested.
Republicans had reason to be nervous about Tuesday's contest even before the first returns showed Ossoff threatening to break 50 percent.
Two polls released Monday found Ossoff with more than 40 percent of the vote, over 20 points ahead of Republican runner-up Handel. The early voting heavily favored the Democrat until Election Day voting gradually ate into his lead throughout the night.
David M. Drucker contributed to this report.