US Republicans shaken by electoral setback in Georgia

Failure to secure ‘safe’ seat fuels GOP fears about impact of Donald Trump’s low ratings

Democratic US House of Representatives candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters during a special election night party in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: EPA

Democratic US House of Representatives candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters during a special election night party in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: EPA

 

US president Donald Trump faced the first electoral challenge of his presidency on Tuesday night, as Republicans failed to secure a key congressional seat in the Republican heartland of Georgia, prompting a run-off on June 20th.

The closely-watched election in Georgia’s sixth congressional district saw little-known Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff secure close to 49 per cent of the vote with 95 per cent of ballots counted, pushing Republican candidates Karen Handel and Judson Hill into second and third places respectively.

With no candidate passing the 50 per cent threshold required to win, a run-off on June 20th is now likely to be held to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price who was appointed by the US president as health and human services secretary.

While the Republicans are expected to rally around a single candidate ahead of the June run-off, boosting their chances of success, the fact that a political unknown came within touching distance of a congressional seat that has been held by Republicans for 37 years has unnerved many in the party, who are becoming increasingly concerned that Mr Trump’s low ratings could harm its chances in next year’s mid-term elections.

Vulnerable

The sixth district of Georgia, located in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, has been a traditionally Republican district. But it also has one of the highest percentage of well-educated Republican voters in the country, a base that has not played well for the US president, which prompted fears among Republican strategists that the seat could be vulnerable.

A surprisingly strong campaign by Mr Ossoff was underpinned by a multi-million dollar funding campaign, fuelling a real possibility in recent days that the former political aide could cause an upset. The Republican campaign was split across 11 candidates, weakening the party’s hold over a district that was once held by right-wing conservative Newt Gingrich.

Mr Trump took to Twitter before the final vote was confirmed, tweeting: “Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG “R” win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!”.

The US president had issued several tweets in the days preceding the election, urging Republican supporters to get out and vote. “Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress. VERY weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say NO,” he tweeted at the start of election day. A tweet just before polls closed read: “Just learned that Jon @Ossoff, who is running for Congress in Georgia, doesn’t even live in the district. Republicans, get out and vote!”

Rancorous campaign

Mr Ossoff, a film-maker who lives just outside the electoral district in Georgia, declared as a candidate in January, with the Democratic party quickly coalescing around his candidacy. A little-known candidate, he previously worked as an aide to Democratic congressman Hank Johnson. Republicans, in contrast, ran a rancorous campaign that was marred by infighting.

In a sign of the increasing anxiety among the Republican establishment, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a key Republican funder, ran a series of ad campaigns, lambasting Mr Ossoff and portrayingh him as a “yes man” to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

Despite Mr Ossoff’s better-than-expected performance, the Republican party is expected to mount a much stronger campaign for the run-off in June, and is likely to back Ms Handel, a former secretary of state for Georgia.

Tuesday’s tight race took place following a narrower-than-expected victory for the Republicans in Kansas last week, when Ron Estes secured the seat vacated by Mike Pompeo on his appointment by Mr Trump as director of the CIA. Mr Estes, the former state treasurer, defeated Democrat James Thompson by seven percentage points in Kansas’s 4th congressional district, a safe Republican seat.