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Early returns close in Georgia special election

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff are running close to each other as the first votes are counted Tuesday night in Georgia’s special House election, a race that drew nationwide focus as a referendum on President Donald Trump.

Ossoff had 50.7 percent of the vote to 49.3 percent for Handel as the district’s counties tallied early votes about an hour after the polls closed.

The special election mushroomed into a nationally watched barometer of Trump’s first five months in office, with anti-Trump Democratic donors from around the country sending a record $23 million-plus to Ossoff’s campaign and Handel trying to keep longtime Republicans behind the party in Georgia’s 6th District, a one-time Republican stronghold that Trump carried by less than two points in 2016. The candidates and outside groups spent over $50 million combined during six months of campaigning.

Two voting locations remained open an extra half-hour because of delays earlier in the day, which also saw torrential downpour in part of the district.

Handel and Republicans have tied Ossoff to national Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, looking to paint him as too liberal for the district’s voters — and prevent a win that could further galvanize the Democratic base.

“They surely don’t want Nancy Pelosi’s guy coming in to try to buy this seat,” Handel said Tuesday on Fox News.

Republican outside groups have spent millions of dollars pushing that message as a counter to Ossoff’s campaign. Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan, set a record for the most money spent by one outside group in a House race.

Ossoff has campaigned as a moderate cost-cutter and has held small leads in most public surveys of the special election. But polls have been closer in the final week of the race, and Handel was optimistic she would win the seat, which Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price held for years for the GOP before resigning to join Trump’s Cabinet. Republicans currently have a 24-seat edge in the House of Representatives.

“We held our own in early voting, neck and neck, and Republicans in Georgia … they are Election Day voters and they are coming out in force,” Handel said on Fox.

Meanwhile, Ossoff rallied his large corps of volunteers, urging them to get supporters to the polls.

“This is where the rubber meets road,” Ossoff said. “This race is so close — and y’all have worked so hard — that means we can’t leave any door un-knocked and any voter untouched.”

Though Ossoff launched his campaign with the slogan “make Trump furious,” he has not mentioned the president as often in the runoff campaign, sticking instead to local business development and cutting waste in Washington. Handel has embraced the White House on many policy positions and accepted support and fundraising help from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the runoff, but she was largely quiet on the president in the primary.

Georgia’s 6th District is the most heavily educated GOP-held district in the House, and Trump is not nearly as popular there as past Republican presidential nominees. Ossoff has tried to win over some of those voters with his moderate-themed campaign.

Turnout is expected to climb dramatically since over 192,000 people voted in the April all-party primary, when Ossoff and Handel finished first and second to advance to the June 20 runoff, with Ossoff finishing just shy of a majority that would have won him the seat. Over 140,000 people cast early ballots for the runoff.

Both parties spent the last two months urging voters who did not cast ballots in April to participate in June, and interest in the campaign has been unusually intense among district voters. Ninety-two percent of voters in a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution poll said they were watching the race “closely,” and more than half of voters said they thought the special election was more important than past elections.

The intense Georgia race has completely overshadowed another House special election taking place Tuesday night in South Carolina. Republican Ralph Norman is favored to take over the state’s GOP-leaning 5th District, which was left vacant when Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney left Congress to join the Trump administration.

Norman, a former state legislator who has pledged to join the House Freedom Caucus if elected, is running against Democrat Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs tax expert.

Elena Schneider contributed to this report.

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