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June Runoff Will Decide Winner Of Georgia Congressional Seat


There was a political upset of sorts in Georgia last night. This is because in a special election, a Democrat came very close to winning a district that's been in Republican hands since the 1970s. It was Tom Price's district before he became secretary of Health and Human Services. Jon Ossoff, a newcomer to politics, won close to half the vote - more than 48 percent - in a vote with 18 candidates. He did not quite win. There will now be a runoff. But he spoke last night as if he had.


JON OSSOFF: Let's show...


OSSOFF: ...What it means when we say that we have more in common than we have apart...


OSSOFF: ...That we reject fear and scapegoating...


OSSOFF: ...And division - that we choose to love one another and to make things happen and to win. Thank you so much, everybody.


GREENE: OK. Domenico Montanaro from NPR's Politics team is here. And Domenico, this Democrat came pretty close.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, look, David, I got to tell you, though - close is only good in horseshoes and grenades. OK?

GREENE: Yes, that is true.

MONTANARO: So you know, he came up 3,000 - a little over 3,600 votes short of a majority. And that is just not good enough. You know, Democrats wanted to win this thing outright. And the problem is now going into a runoff with Karen Handel who's the Republican who's pretty well-known in the district. She ran twice before for governor and for senator.

Going into, you know, a runoff like that against a Republican who's well-known, who doesn't - you know, there aren't 11 other candidates this time. There's going to be a ton of money, a ton of focus, a ton of energy and probably more people to the polls. This is like starting from scratch all over again for both sides.

GREENE: Well, if the Republicans end up holding on to this seat, is what Ossoff pulled off last night significant at all? Or will we just close the book on this and say, yup, the Republicans held that seat and move on?

MONTANARO: Well, no. I think that there are some lessons still to be learned. I mean, the fact is that this could have been a big shockwave that was sent to the White House and Donald Trump. Instead, maybe there was a smaller electrical current, you know.

Like, you know - but unfortunately for Republicans and Donald Trump, he's not really reading that message. He took this as a big win. He was up late last night. I was up late last night watching these results. And apparently, Donald...

GREENE: You missed those long nights watching election returns, right? You wanted to get back to them.

MONTANARO: It is just one of those things, you know. You - it's like a junkie drip. It comes - they come in, and there's the results. And you're watching them stay above the 50 percent line, and you're wondering what's going to happen. And it looked like he was going to slip just below it last night, Ossoff, and he did.

And Donald Trump was up late, too, and after midnight tweeted, you know, that he was a great help - he was glad to be a big help. And that is the last thing Republicans want to hear - mainstream Republicans and Republican committees who want to win suburban districts like this - because Donald Trump's approval rating right now is not very good. It's not helpful in places like this district.

You know, Trump only won this district by 2 points. And this is a place that they should win much better than that. You had Tom Price win with more than 60 percent of the vote. So clearly, Trump can be a drag here. And, you know, signs are that we could wind up with a very close race. And it's going to depend, if Trump is going to tie this to himself, how his presidency plays out over the next two months until June 20 when this runoff takes place.

GREENE: So interesting, Domenico, the fact that Donald Trump is celebrating and trying to tie himself, which is something that you say could hurt Republicans in districts like this. What does that say about the president's relationship with his party and his willingness to do what's necessary to help them?

MONTANARO: Well, look, I think the fact is he weighed in in Kansas. He weighed in very strongly in Georgia. The last minute, he went up with a robocall. He tweeted about...

GREENE: It was in Kansas we had that special election recently where a Democrat almost - came much closer to winning than we expected.

MONTANARO: That's right, yeah. I mean, that Democrat finished 7 points behind. And, you know, Trump had won that district by 27 points. This is a different situation. Trump, though, feels like this is his party. He's going to make it all about him, and he is going to try to do what he can to sort of browbeat politically to make sure that he's able to try to get his party over the line.

You know, whether or not he - his brand works in that district or in districts like this - and I have to say, this is exactly the kind of district, though, for Democrats that they have to win if they're going to try to take back the House in 2018, which is a difficult thing to do because of how these districts are drawn.

GREENE: Are we going to see, after races like the one in Kansas and this one in Georgia, Republicans and Democrats start to shift their messages as we get closer to 2018 and the midterms?

MONTANARO: Well, you wonder. I mean, it's going to depend, again, on how Trump governs over the next year and a half. You know, how does his approval rating tick up or tick down? The first midterm for any president is always a difficult one. You know, on average, since World War II, they've lost an average of - the president's party has lost an average of 29 seats. Democrats need 24 seats to take back the House. Of course, these districts are drawn in a way that's much more favorable to Republicans. And Republicans in the last 30 years have fared somewhat better. George W. Bush is the only one - the only president to actually gain seats, although that was after 9/11 and after the last round of redistricting.

GREENE: Just a couple seconds left, Domenico. I wanted to ask you a question about Fox News. There's so much swirling this morning, it seems, around host Bill O'Reilly - very popular host, we should say - and these sexual harassment allegations. Do we know anything new about his future right now?

MONTANARO: Well, we know NPR's David Folkenflik had reported last night that NPR can report that Fox News is game-planning for life after O'Reilly, possible primetime replacements. So I think we're going to be hearing a lot more about that in the hours and days to come.

GREENE: OK, we'll be watching David Folkenflik's reporting as the day goes on. Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team, thanks as always.

MONTANARO: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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