- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Republicans narrowly managed to avoid an embarrassing defeat in Georgia’s special congressional election this week, but their chance of winning the runoff in June depends on forging unity that’s been sorely lacking in the GOP since President Trump took office.

Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff came close to winning the race for Georgia’s empty House seat, with 48 percent of the vote — just shy of the 50 percent that would have given him an outright victory.

Instead, the race heads to a June 20 runoff with GOP candidate Karen Handel, the runner-up who emerged with 19.7 percent of the vote.

All told, the 11 Republicans in the race split 51 percent of the vote, while Democrats — Mr. Ossoff and four others — accounted for 49 percent of the vote.

Ms. Handel said as long as the GOP can unify, she’ll win the runoff.

“We all have to rise above it,” she said on CNN’s “New Day” program. “So we are all, including the very good 10 other Republican candidates, we are all going to be united because we know what our job is over the next 60 days.”

The seat, which was left vacant when Rep. Tom Price resigned to become President Trump’s health secretary earlier this year, is considered GOP territory — though Mr. Trump barely won it in last year’s presidential election.

Liberal groups have turned the race into a national referendum on Mr. Trump’s early tenure, and vowed Wednesday to keep the pressure up.

“Republicans are being forced to sweat ruby-red districts, like this one, because ordinary people in Georgia and communities across this country focused on resisting Donald Trump’s hate are making elections like tonight’s nail biters,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America.

The result of the runoff will depend on how quickly Republicans can patch up rifts that developed during the campaign, and that have also appeared in Washington, where spats over how to repeal Obamacare and how to overhaul the tax code have divided the GOP.

Still, Mrs. Handel’s GOP rivals in Georgia signaled they’ll help her.

“I said, ‘Of course, Karen, you are the nominee,’” Bruce Levell, who served as director of Donald Trump’s minority outreach in 2016 and received less than one percent of the vote, said, recalling a late-night phone call from Mrs. Handel. “‘What would I look like with all the preaching I have done to turn around and say I am not going to help you?’”

Bob Gray, another former GOP opponent who finished third in the race, also said he’ll back Mrs. Handel.

“We are going to rally behind Karen Handel,” Mr. Gray said on Twitter. “We wish her Godspeed.”

Pro-life groups celebrated the Handel win, calling her a “fearless champion of unborn children and their mothers” and the Tea Party Express on Wednesday endorsed Mrs. Handel after staying out of the opening round.

“It is clear by Karen Handel’s commanding victory over her Republican opponents that the primary process worked and the strongest candidate has emerged,” said Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express.

The Club for Growth, though, was less enthused about Mrs. Handel’s win. The group, which ran attack ads against her in the run-up to Tuesday’s contest, said it would probably not pour any more money into the race.

Mr. Trump, who urged Republicans to head to the polls Tuesday to push the contest into overtime, called to congratulate Mrs. Handel. And the White House chided Democrats for failing to cross the 50 percent mark.

“I think this was a big loss for them,” said Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “The bottom line is they went all in on it; they said that their goal was to get over 50 percent. They came up short.”

Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, declared victory and said his party will stay united behind Mr. Ossoff.

“I’d rather be Jon Ossoff than Karen Handel right now,” Mr. Perez said on CNN. “We have a lot of wind at our back. The progressive energy out there is palpable and the volunteers are out there and we’re going to be knocking on doors and the DNC is all in and other partners are all in.”

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