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Republican Karen Handel Defeats Democrat Jon Ossoff in Expensive Georgia Special Election

Variety logo Variety 6/21/2017 Ted Johnson
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Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in a blockbuster special election for a Georgia congressional seat that was viewed as a barometer for both parties in the chaotic first months of President Trump’s tenure.

CNN projected Handel, 55, would win the seat about 10 p.m. ET.

The race for the suburban Atlanta seat was the most expensive congressional race ever, with the candidates, outside groups and the national parties pouring more than $50 million.

“I said to everyone this was going to be a very, very tight race, that it was going to be contentious, and that it was going to require all hands on deck, and that is exactly what we had,” Handel told supporters.

The race was closely watched by the national party organizations in Washington, activists across the country and a host of politically engaged entertainment figures. It was viewed not just as a referendum on Trump’s tenure, but sort of a test run of whether Democrats could channel protests and activism into electoral victory and boost their hopes for the 2018 midterms.

The results will likely stir consternation among Democrats seeking victories in the prelude to the 2018 midterms, and a reprieve for Republicans worried that Trump could be a drag on candidates in local races.

Ossoff, 30, a documentary filmmaker, emerged as an early favorite in a crowded field of contenders after his candidacy was boosted by progressive activists, including the Daily Kos website. They saw opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat in a Republican leaning district, but fell short.

“We showed the world that in places no one thought it was possible we could fight, we could fight,” Ossoff told supporters after his loss.

Ossoff actually downplayed the idea that this race was a referendum on Trump, while Handel kept a distance from the president. Still, that did not keep the national media and many political observers from seeing the race as a measure of Trump’s impact.

The special election was to fill a the seat vacated by Tom Price, who resigned to become Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. He won re-election handily last year by 23 percentage points, but Trump just barely squeaked by in the district.

Ossoff’s candidacy drew nationwide attention, collecting donations from Jane Fonda, Rosie O’Donnell and Sam Waterston, among others. Samuel L. Jackson recorded get-out-the-vote radio spots, while Alyssa Milano volunteered for the campaign and walked precincts and drove residents to early vote.

Still, Ossoff fell just short of winning a majority against a crowded field of candidates in an April election, which would have been enough to win the seat outright. Instead, he advanced to a runoff against Handel, who was giving the advantage early on because she would be able to consolidate conservative support in a GOP-leaning district.

In the weeks since then, Republicans sought to characterize Ossoff as a creature of the liberal elite, tying him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and also made much of his support from Hollywood figures. While that tends to be a typical part of the GOP playbook, some of the advertisements from Handel-supporting SuperPACs were especially provocative, like one spot that tried to link Ossoff to Kathy Griffin shortly after she did a photo shoot in which she held up a bloody effigy of Trump’s head. As it turned out, the only link that Griffin had to Ossoff’s campaign was when she retweeted someone’s promotion of his campaign back in March.

Yet as much as the GOP hammered Ossoff because so much of his financial support came from outside the district, Handel, too, enjoyed the backing of SuperPACs based far away from Georgia.

Ossoff raised more than $23 million at of May 31, while Handel raised $4.5 million. But she enjoyed heavy backing from outside groups. Those independent committees spent about $18 million on her campaign, while outside groups spent about $7.6 million for Ossoff, according the the New York Times.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, which spent close to $7 million on the race, was especially scathing in linking Ossoff to Hollywood. They produced the ad featuring Griffin and another called “Hollywood vs. Georgia.”

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