ATLANTA -- The nation's premier 2017 political race entered a bruising new stage Wednesday, as Karen Handel sought to rally skeptical Republicans while Democrats supporting Jon Ossoff prepared for a grueling second round of votes to represent a north Atlanta district in Congress.
The two will square off in a June 20 runoff that is seen as a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency, a perception that the Republican cemented with his personal involvement in the race. He recorded a robocall and unleashed a barrage of tweets assailing Ossoff and, in a call Wednesday to Handel, pledged more help and resources ahead of the final vote.
Handel captured about 20 percent of the vote to emerge as the leading GOP contender in the 18-candidate race, and she moved to heal deep divisions among Republicans -- particularly within Georgia's elected ranks -- torn over her candidacy.
"We all understand that what's at stake is bigger than one person, and we're seeing that now," she said in an interview, pitching herself as the only remaining barrier standing against Democrats hoping to capture a district once considered the safest of Republican seats. "You'll see the enthusiasm continue to build."
A 30-year-old former congressional aide, Ossoff aimed for an outright victory in Tuesday's special election, hoping to exploit a crowded field and bitter infighting between the 11 Republicans in the race. He cast his performance -- he tallied about 48 percent of the vote -- as a "victory for the ages," although he fell short of his goal of avoiding a runoff.
Ossoff fared far better Tuesday than polling suggested thanks to a surge in turnout in DeKalb County -- the bluest part of the district -- and enthusiasm from voters who rarely cast ballots in special elections. He also easily consolidated support among left-leaning voters, squashing the four other Democrats in the race.
But he did so at an enormous expense: He raised more than $8.3 million and emptied much of his campaign bank account in the final days of the race. He raised that enormous sum -- an unprecedented quarterly amount in a congressional race -- by positioning himself as a "make Trump furious" candidate who became a standard-bearer for the Trump resistance.
"No one expected just six weeks ago that we would win so big last night," Ossoff said in an interview. "We were able to build a grass-roots organization of unprecedented intensity and scale in just a few months. Now we've got more time to keep growing it."
He'll now go back to the same donor base for a new round of cash to fuel his campaign, which will come under more targeted attacks from Handel and a more unified Republican base. Voting history and demographics of the district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, are still squarely against him.
"The Democrats threw everything they possibly could at this race for a very competitive seat that became the center of national politics," said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the No. 5 Republican in the U.S. House.