Democrat closes in on Congress seat in Georgia

Congressional candidate Jon Ossoff at a post-election party in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on Tuesday. He finished first in a crowded field of candidates, but fell short of the 50 per cent of votes needed to win. The run-off election will be on June 20. Pundi
Congressional candidate Jon Ossoff at a post-election party in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on Tuesday. He finished first in a crowded field of candidates, but fell short of the 50 per cent of votes needed to win. The run-off election will be on June 20. Pundits said Republican rival Karen Handel will likely win. PHOTO: REUTERS

A young Democratic Party candidate has come close to winning an outright victory for a US Congressional seat in a staunchly Republican district in Georgia, in an early sign of trouble for the ruling party in next year's mid-term elections.

Documentary film-maker Jon Ossoff, 30, a one-time Congressional staffer who does not even hail from the area he wants to represent, finished first in a crowded field of candidates on Tuesday in a traditionally conservative district.

But he fell short of the 50 per cent of votes needed to send him straight to Washington. He garnered 48.1 per cent of the vote. The nearest Republican was former Georgia secretary of state Karen Handel, who won just 19.8 per cent of the vote.

The election was for the seat vacated by Republican Tom Price - who won with nearly 62 per cent of the vote last year - after United States President Donald Trump appointed him Secretary of Health and Human Services.

However, winning the June 20 run-off election will be tougher for Mr Ossoff. Mrs Handel could benefit from having served as a Georgia secretary of state and from her party coalescing around a single candidate. Nevertheless, Mr Ossoff's strong showing offered proof of a re-energised Democratic base that could fire up a a torrid fight for the Congress mid-term elections next year, said analysts.

Mr Ossoff attracted massive funding of US$8.3 million (S$11.6 million) and a series of celebrity endorsements. By contrast, the Republican Party mobilised about US$2 million in counter-advertising, portraying the Democrat as an outsider who is "too liberal".

Mr Ossoff and his campaign also adopted the slogan "Make Trump Furious" and analysts saw the Democrat's strong showing as evidence of the unpopularity of the US President during his early days in office.

Pundits said Mrs Handel will likely win the run-off, but on Tuesday the Republican said in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution: "Beating Ossoff and holding this seat is something that rises above any one person."

The close contest had prompted Mr Trump to take to Twitter to urge Republicans to vote. After the election, he tweeted: "Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG "R" win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!"

But Democratic Party supporters were fired up, said University of Georgia professor Charles S. Bullock. "This is a case of Democratic Party supporters taking a shot at Donald Trump; they can't because that election is over, so they take a shot at the party instead," the political scientist told The Straits Times over the phone.

"Handel's challenge is to mobilise supporters of the other Republicans. If she can't, then Ossoff has a chance of winning in June. There's a good chance Ossoff's supporters will maintain their enthusiasm - precisely because he came so close."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2017, with the headline 'Democrat closes in on Congress seat in Georgia'. Print Edition | Subscribe