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Her relatively comfortable victory Tuesday over Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia's 6th Congressional District continued a string of defeats (four in all) in special elections for Democrats since President Donald Trump took office.
To further sting their political rivals, Republicans also won an important but less closely watched race in South Carolina, when GOP candidate Ralph Norman won a special election Tuesday to fill the congressional seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney, who had vacated to become President Trump's new White House budget director.
"It's a good win, and we're excited," Norman, a real estate developer who aligned himself with President Trump, told The Associated Press. "We're looking forward to getting to work in Washington."
Democrat Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs tax adviser, had argued he was best suited to represent the district, which was in Democratic hands for more than 100 years until Mulvaney's 2010 victory. He said he called Norman on Tuesday night to congratulate him on his victory.
Ralph Norman ran a fantastic race to win in the Great State of South Carolina's 5th District. We are all honored by your success tonight!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2017
But most eyes were on Georgia, where liberals from all over, including the Hollywood set campaigned aggressively for Osoff. Georgia's outcome follows similar results in Montana, Kansas and now South Carolina, where Republicans won special House races by much narrower margins than they managed as recently as November.
Democrats must flip 24 GOP-held seats to regain a House majority next November, but the latest losses mean party leaders and liberal groups will have to rally donors and volunteers after a tough stretch of special elections.
Handel, 55, becomes the latest in a line of Republicans who have represented the district since 1979, beginning with Newt Gingrich, who would become House speaker. Most recently, Tom Price resigned the post in February to join Trump's administration as health and human services secretary. The president himself struggled here, though, edging Democrat Hillary Clinton but falling short of a majority among an affluent, well-educated electorate that typically has given Republican nominees better than 60 percent of the vote.
"This is such an important election because of what goes on in D.C.," said Tom Greathouse, 52, a business owner who supported Handel. He added that there's been "a ton of emotion" in a district used to watching Republicans coast.
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
In April, Handel trailed Ossoff in the first round of voting but led all Republican candidates to qualify for a runoff. Ossoff tallied 48 percent, just shy of an outright victory.
A former Georgia secretary of state, Handel emphasized throughout the campaign that she has lived in the district for 25 years, unlike Ossoff, who grew up in the district but no longer lives there. He resides in Atlanta, a few miles south of the 6th District's southern border.
Handel also pointed to the district's pedigree throughout the campaign, urging Republicans not to let Democrats "steal" a seat that became a proxy for the national dynamics in Washington. Party organizations, independent political action committees and donors from Los Angeles to Boston sent a cascade of money into a race, filling metro Atlanta's airwaves with ads and its 6th District neighborhoods with hordes of paid canvassers.
Handel insisted for months that voters' choice had little to do with Trump, whom she rarely mentioned, despite holding a closed-door fundraiser with him earlier this spring. She pointed voters instead to her "proven conservative record" as a state and local elected official.
Her protestations aside, Handel often embraced the national tenor of the race, joining a GOP chorus that lambasted Ossoff as a "dangerous liberal" who was "hand-picked" by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She also welcomed a parade of national GOP figures to Atlanta to help her raise money, with Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan holding fundraisers following Trump's April visit.
It was enough to help Handel raise more than $5 million, not a paltry sum in a congressional race, but barely a fifth of Ossoff's fundraising haul. The Republican campaign establishment, however, helped make up the difference. A super PAC backed by Ryan spent $7 million alone.
"Democrats from coast to coast threw everything they had at this race, and Karen would not be defeated," Ryan said in a statement.
Besides allowing national Republicans to exhale, Handel ended a personal losing streak, including failed primary bids for governor in 2010 and the U.S. Senate in 2014.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.