GOP's Karen Handel wins most expensive House race ever, dashing Democrat upset hopes

Key Points
  • Republican Karen Handel beats Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia special congressional election
  • The election was widely seen as an early test of whether Democrats can leverage the resistance to President Donald Trump to flip traditionally Republican districts
GOP's Karen Handel wins most expensive House race ever, dashing Democrat upset hopes
GOP's Karen Handel wins most expensive House race ever, dashing Democrat upset hopes

Republican Karen Handel has won Georgia's record-breaking special congressional election, dashing hopes by Democrats to pull off an upset in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

Seen as an early proxy for whether Democrats can flip certain Republican-leaning districts in the President Donald Trump era, Tuesday's election drew national attention and record cash from around the country. Democrats have aimed to leverage Trump's dismal approval rating and opposition to the Republican health-care bill into winning Republican seats and potentially taking control of the House in 2018.

The race for Georgia's 6th District for the seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price pitted Handel, 55, the former Georgia secretary of state, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 30-year old former congressional aide. Fueled by a rush of donors from around the U.S., Ossoff pushed for an upset in the suburban Atlanta district that Price repeatedly won easily.

He came up short, as Handel won by about 5 percentage points, according to incomplete returns.

The two campaigns and outside groups supporting and opposing the candidates shelled out at least $36 million as of May 31, including more than $22 million from Ossoff's campaign. The election easily set a record for spending in a House race, according to NBC News.

Republicans may see holding the seat as one sign that Trump's agenda and lack of popularity may not be as damaging for the party as Democrats hope. Separately on Tuesday, Republican Ralph Norman avoided an upset by winning a special election in South Carolina's 5th District, a seat vacated by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

GOP Karen Handel wins closely watched Georgia House election
GOP Karen Handel wins closely watched Georgia House election

Speaking after her win, Handel said her first priorities in Congress will be finishing the GOP health-care bill and working to lower corporate and individual tax rates.

In the four races for red House districts vacated by Trump nominees, the Republican candidate won but the Democrat performed better than the party's candidate did in 2016. Still, it is not clear yet what the effect will be on the 2018 elections, which take place more than a year from now.

Democrats need to win 24 seats to take the House.

In remarks to supporters, Ossoff said he called Handel to concede. He said that "this is the beginning of something much bigger than us."

Trump won the highly-educated Georgia 6th District by only 1.5 points last year. Still, Price got more than 60 percent of the vote there in 2016 and won comfortably there for most of the time after he first won the seat in 2004.

Underscoring the national attention on the race, Trump repeatedly chimed in on it multiple times leading up to the results.

In a Tuesday tweet that started with "KAREN HANDEL FOR CONGRESS," Trump said she would "fight for lower taxes, great healthcare" and "strong security."

As Handel won Tuesday, Trump tweeted that Handel did a "fantastic job" and said "we are all very proud of you."

He later lauded what he called a 5 -0 record in congressional races since his election. While the GOP won four special elections in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Georgia, the fifth special election in California featured two Democrats, so it is unclear exactly what Trump means.


Handel also thanked the president in her victory speech, prompting chants of "Trump!" from supporters.

— The AP and CNBC's John Harwood contributed to this report