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Georgia race costliest in history as Trump opponents unite behind Democrat

Karen Handel (Jessica McGowan, Getty Images North America/AFP) beat Jon Ossoff (Joe Raedle, Getty Images North America/AFP) in a special election for Georgia's sixth district on Tuesday.

Republican Karen Handel won a special election in Georgia on Tuesday that was widely seen as a referendum on Trump, after opponents of the president nationwide mobilised in an attempt to defeat the GOP candidate.


Handel won by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent for Democratic rival Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old political outsider who had sought to wrest a seat away from the Republican majority in Congress.

Trump opponents across the United States mobilised on social media to defeat Handel, 55, in Georgia’s sixth district, which has chosen GOP members of Congress in every election since 1979. As donations for Ossoff flowed in from across the country, the race quickly became the most expensive congressional contest in history, with at least $57 million in estimated spending – almost twice the previous $29.5 million record set by a Florida district in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit government watchdog.

Ossoff’s campaign raised money mainly from small donors while Handel relied on the aid of super PACs (political action committees), receiving twice as much as Ossoff did from these and other outside groups. But her fundraising was no match for Ossoff’s: the Democrat raised $23.6 million through May 31 with almost 65 percent of those funds from donations of $200 or less, according to the Center. Handel raised a mere $4.6 million, only 35 percent of which was from small donors.

The Georgia vote also lured generous funding from out of state – of the 42 groups that donated money to the campaigns, only five were based in Georgia, totalling donations of less than $100,000.

Handel supports Trump’s policy on building a Mexico border wall, is firmly against abortion and calls Obamacare “the single biggest intrusion into the lives of Americans in decades”. She has come under heavy criticism from some quarters for her strong opposition to allowing same-sex marriage and allowing gay couples to adopt.

In a widely shared interview clip, Handel was asked if she opposes gay marriage. “Absolutely,” she says. “Marriage is between one man and one woman, and I’ve been very, very clear about that.”

Ossoff is a former entrepreneur who supports abortion rights as well as gay rights, and had vowed to “fight tirelessly against discrimination, hate speech, or violence against Americans on the basis of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or place of birth”.

Ossoff supporters pushed the hashtags #FlipThe6th and #VoteYourOssoff on social media as progressives across the country tried to “flip” the longtime Republican district after Ossoff came close to taking 50 percent of the vote in an April 19 primary.

“Democrats know the importance of flipping a historically red (Republican) district so their thought process is: ‘If they can flip Georgia 6, they can flip anything’,” said Ryan Bakker, associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia, in comments to the Center for Responsive Politics.

For the GOP, losing the sixth district would have sent a clear message that even traditionally conservative areas oppose the Trump administration’s policies, many of which have come under fire from longtime Republicans.

Losing this election would have been a “really hard hit”, Bakker said, adding that it would have highlighted the sharp divisions between Republicans who have rallied behind Trump and those whose support remains lukewarm.

Despite the loss, Democrats celebrated the fact that they had managed to make the fight for Georgia’s conservative sixth district so competitive. Former representative Tom Price, who vacated the seat to become Trump's secretary of health and human services, won by a more than 20-point margin.

“We showed the world that, in places where no one thought it was even possible to fight, we could fight,” Ossoff told supporters after the results came in.

The race was one of two special elections Republicans won on Tuesday, the other in South Carolina, both held to replace members of Congress who vacated their seats to join the Trump administration.

Handel’s win does not shift the balance of power in Congress but it offers the Trump administration a win after weeks of high-profile scandals, from the controversial firing of FBI director James Comey to ongoing investigations into whether the Trump team colluded with Russian officials to influence the 2016 election. Trump’s approval rating also continues to slip and is now at a meagre 37 percent, according to a June 19 Reuters/Ipsos poll.

It may also give the Republicans new confidence as they pursue attempts to overhaul the healthcare system and the tax code, both likely to entail protracted and fraught negotiations with Democrats in Congress.

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