A political newcomer who thrilled Democrats with a strong showing in a Georgia congressional election despite attacks from U.S. President Donald Trump faces a promised Republican wall of unity in June’s runoff after a close call in a district the party has dominated for decades.
Democrat Jon Ossoff drew 48.1 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s special election, just shy of the 50 percent needed for victory in the suburban Atlanta district, which has sent Republicans to Congress since the 1970s.
Ossoff, 30, was the top vote getter in a field of 18 candidates – 11 of them Republicans – vying for the seat Republican Tom Price vacated to become Trump’s health secretary. Republican Karen Handel, 55, a former Georgia secretary of state, won 19.8 percent, and will face Ossoff in the June 20 runoff.
The runoff election presents a stiffer challenge. If Ossoff draws the support of the other Democratic candidates, he would have 49 percent, said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez.
However, Perez said the party would target up to 35,000 Democrats who voted in November’s presidential election but not on Tuesday.
“We have an army of volunteers,” he told CNN.
Handel, who said Trump called to congratulate her on Wednesday morning, dismissed Ossoff as a well-funded novice who would flounder as Republicans consolidated support behind a single candidate.
“We know that this is an important race, and it’s going to stay in the hands of a Republican,” Handel told CNN. “It is all Republicans, all hands on deck.”
Demographic changes have made Georgia’s affluent 6th Congressional District more competitive for Democrats.
Trump won the district by only 1.5 percentage points in November against Democrat Hillary Clinton, who drew support from its many college graduates.
Ossoff, a former congressional staffer and documentary filmmaker, ran on a pledge to “Make Trump Furious.”
Trump jumped into the race in the final days with attacks on Twitter poking fun at Ossoff for not living in his own district and for attracting support from Hollywood celebrities.
The Republican president weighed in again on Wednesday with a tweet saying, “It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th.”
In response, Ossoff portrayed Trump, a New York businessman who had never held public office, as the Washington insider.
“Folks in Washington tend to overstate their influence in local races like this,” he told MSNBC. “This comes down to grassroots intensity.”
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)