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Georgia Special Election Heads To Runoff As GOP Avoids Brutal Loss


Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief after last night's special election in Georgia where a Democrat came up just shy of winning a House seat that's been in GOP hands for decades. Democrat Jon Ossoff received lots of attention and an unheard of amount of money from progressives across the country, and now Ossoff is headed to a runoff in late June against Republican Karen Handel, who came out ahead of 10 other Republican candidates last night.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us from the White House. And Mara, what did you make of last night's result?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, there was bad news and good news for Democrats. They fell short. But the good news is that Ossoff, who was a neophyte candidate with no record was able to make this race a referendum on Donald Trump, and he over-performed his polling. The private and public polls showed that he was in the low-40s, but he cracked 48 percent. And that means Democrats did well enough last night that they will probably continue pouring money into all of these special elections. We've got another one in Montana coming up on May 25.

SIEGEL: Well, does this one special election race give us any sign for what to look for heading into the 2018 midterms?

LIASSON: I think it tells us a couple of things. Number one, Democrats have a lot of organic enthusiasm, and there's some Republican disenchantment with Trump in districts like this one in Georgia. We know that Republicans still have a lot of structural advantages. They have a lot of resources. The House and Senate maps favor them. We also have learned that Democrats seem to have decided the only answer to their predicament is to run everywhere to try to replenish their pipeline. They are a hollowed-out party, and they seem to understand they have to build from the grassroots.

And to put all this in context, this district was very Republican, but there are about two dozen other districts out there that Hillary Clinton won and that are held by Republicans. The 6th District of Georgia wouldn't have even made it to the top 50 races the Democrats want to target next year. Now, on the other hand, the Democrats need two dozen seats to take the House back, so they do have a very steep hill to climb.

SIEGEL: And we should note this was the seat vacated by Congressman Tom Price being elevated to secretary of health and human services. John Ossoff, the Democrat's, gotten a lot of attention. We haven't heard as much about his GOP opponent, Karen Handel. What can you tell us about her?

LIASSON: She was the secretary of state of Georgia. She has statewide name I.D. She has run twice for other statewide offices unsuccessfully in Republican primaries for governor and Senate. She also was a former official at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. She had to resign amidst that controversy over the cancer group's decision not to give grants to Planned Parenthood. That's a decision that was later reversed.

But Karen Handel has impeccable pro-life credentials. She's a pro-life heroine for that Susan G. Komen controversy. We don't know if that's going to help her or hurt her in this district. During the primary, she kept her distance from Donald Trump. She was probably the most Trump-ambivalent of all the Republicans. But now Handel says she would be happy for the president to come in and campaign for her.

SIEGEL: Now, there is another bit of political news today. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican congressman who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said that he is not running for re-election next year. What do we know about that?

LIASSON: He says he's returning to the private sector. He's been very coy about his political future. He does say he will not challenge Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who said he will run next time. But Chaffetz might run for governor in 2020. He was asked about that recently, and he said that he's definitely maybe running for governor.

I think what this tells us is that being in Congress is not necessarily the best platform right now for Republicans to run for higher office. And in general, a party trying to defend its majority in the House does not want a lot of these retirements because open seats are harder to defend than incumbents. So Chaffetz' decision was probably not good news for Paul Ryan.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mara Liasson joining us from the White House. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.