By Lisa Hagen - 06-20-17 22:09 PM EDT
SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. - Republican Karen Handel won Georgia's special House election Tuesday night, dealing a major blow to Democrats who were hoping to score an early win against President Trump ahead of the 2018 midterms.
The race for the once safely Republican suburban Atlanta seat had become the most expensive House race in history as each side jockeyed to turn it into fodder for their preferred national narrative.
The Republican victory deals a serious blow to Democratic momentum, with the GOP already pointing to Handel's victory as evidence that backlash against President Trump won't win the House for Democrats.
Immediately after Handel's victory, Republican groups began chiding Democrats for earning only a "moral victory" by moving the race into contention, arguing that the result shows they are doomed for the 2018 midterms.
"House Democrats have done it again. After promising a revamped strategy that would deliver them a majority, House Democrats are no closer to that goal today than they were at the beginning of the new year," National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Matt Gorman wrote in a memo released to the media Tuesday night.
"Don't fall for the spin. They marshaled their resources and went all-in Georgia and they failed. Miserably....Moral victories won't get Nancy Pelosi any closer to the gavel."
Georgia's suburban Atlanta district has been a Republican stronghold for decades, with former Speaker Newt Gingrich among the prominent GOP politicians who have held the seat. Voters in the district repeatedly reelected Tom Price, whose appointment to be Trump's Health and Human Services secretary brought on the special election, by a large margin.
The district has a history of Republican representatives, but Trump won the district by less than 2 points in 2016. That drop in GOP presidential enthusiasm made the seat a prime target for Democrats.
Ossoff's loss, expected to be about 5 percentage points when the dust settles, is a bitter pill for Democrats. The Democrat outraised Handel by a 5 to 1 margin, raising hopes that the party could finally score a much-needed victory in Georgia.
While he fell short, Ossoff tried to frame the race as the "beginning of something bigger" as he addressed supporters in his concession speech.
"In the first opportunity in this country to make a statement about values can still unite people at a time when politics has been dominated by fear, hatred and scapegoating and division, this community stood up," Ossoff said.
"This is not the outcome any of us had hoped for, but this is the beginning of something much bigger than us...the fight goes on."
New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luj n, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, echoed a similar sentiment in his statement congratulating Ossoff on his bid. He pushed back at the GOP assertion that Ossoff's loss means the party is struggling in the Trump era, arguing that competitive showing proves the party has the momentum.
"In a very conservative district where Democrats rarely break the mid-30's and Republicans enjoy a massive registration advantage, Jon and his supporters pushed the race to the limit, vastly outperforming past Democrats in both the primary and the runoff," Luj n wrote.
"There are more than 70 districts more favorable to Democrats than this deep-red district, and Ossoff's close margin demonstrates the potential for us to compete deep into the battlefield."
Handel's victory caps off a fiercely fought race that inundated the suburban Atlanta airwaves with attack ads. The total spending on the race is estimated to be a record-breaking $60 million.
Handel thanked a long list of Republicans at her victory speech including Trump, Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose allied super PAC spent millions on advertising and a ground game aimed at cutting Ossoff's vote total down.
Handel's victory means Democrats were unable to win any of the special elections to replace Trump's Cabinet members. Democrats had surprisingly strong showings in Kansas and Montana, but ultimately fell short in those races as well. And in a surprise twist Tuesday night, Democrats came even closer to pulling off an upset in South Carolina, where a special election to fill Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney's former seat coincided with Georgia's vote.
In the wake of defeat, Democrats will likely already be looking to 2018. The focus is expected to be on how they can get winning strategy in other GOP-leaning districts that will allow them to take back the House in 2018.
Handel will serve out the rest of Price's term, which ends in 2018. When Handel is sworn in, she will become Georgia's first female congressional representative.