Supporters of Democrat Jon Ossoff wait for the polls to come in at Ossoff's election night event in Atlanta, Georgia, US, June 20, 2017. Photograph: (Reuters)
The most expensive congressional race in US history was won by the Republican contestant, Karen Handel, as voters in suburban Atlanta cast ballots in an election that was seen by many as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Opinion polls showed a narrow lead for Democrat Jon Ossoff, a political newcomer who is hoping to win a district that has been held by Republicans since the 1970s. He was originally considered a longshot to win. Many Democrats said the fact that the race was so close at all was a kind of win.
Ossoff addressed supporters after his defeat.
Jon Ossoff to supporters: "As darkness has crept across this planet, [you] have provided a beacon of hope for people here in Georgia." pic.twitter.com/28KjpERxbL— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 21, 2017
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, enlisted many of the state's top elected officials to keep Georgia's Sixth District in Republican hands. She avoided talk of Trump, instead focusing on her track record.
"The people of the Sixth District are going to be looking for someone who's been part of this community for nearly 25 years," she told reporters after casting her ballot on Tuesday morning, as several dozen nearby Ossoff supporters chanted "Flip the Sixth".
After she won, the president congratulated her on Twitter.
Congratulations to Karen Handel on her big win in Georgia 6th. Fantastic job, we are all very proud of you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2017
The outcome will not be pivotal to the balance of power in Washington, where Republicans control both chambers of Congress, but an Ossoff victory could have helped Democrats raise money and recruit candidates as they try to win back the House of Representatives in 2018. It also could have encouraged Republican lawmakers to distance themselves from Trump, making it harder to deliver on promised health and tax overhauls.
Handel's decision to not mention the president did not stop Trump from weighing in on Twitter a day earlier, calling Ossoff "weak on crime and security" and telling voters that Handel is "a hard worker who will never give up!"
Republican officials and voters said Trump is a divisive figure in this educated, affluent and increasingly diverse district. "Do I agree 100 per cent with what he does? God, no. But I believe he has the country's best interests at heart," said Jessica Podalsky, who voted for Handel on Tuesday morning.
Ossoff initially campaigned on a promise to "make Trump furious," but more recently avoided taking on the president as he tried to win over centrist voters. He emphasised local concerns and enlisted few prominent Democrats to campaign on his behalf.
"There's a lot of national interest, but it's about voters in the Sixth District who want to see representation that can grow our local economy, improve access to health care and bring accountability to Washington," he told reporters on Monday.
Trump won the district by just 1 percentage point in last year's presidential election, giving Democrats a new sense of hope. "There are more of us than we thought," said Tricia Gephardt, an Ossoff volunteer.
The seat has been vacant since Trump tapped Republican Tom Price to serve as his health secretary.
Democrats are under pressure to win after steadily losing seats in Congress and at the state level in recent years. They fell short in other special congressional elections earlier this year in Kansas and Montana, and are expected to lose another race on Tuesday in South Carolina.
(With inputs from Reuters)