The most expensive congressional race in U.S. history headed to a tight finish on Tuesday as voters in suburban Atlanta cast ballots in an election that was seen by many as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Voting concluded at 7 p.m. (2300 GMT), but results were not expected for several hours. Opinion polls showed a narrow lead for Democrat Jon Ossoff, a political newcomer who is hoping to win a district that has been held by Republicans since the 1970s.
The outcome will not be pivotal to the balance of power in Washington, where Republicans control both chambers of Congress, but an Ossoff victory could help Democrats raise money and recruit candidates as they try to win back the House of Representatives in 2018. It also could encourage Republican lawmakers to distance themselves from Trump, making it harder to deliver on promised health and tax overhauls.
Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, enlisted many of the state’s top elected officials to keep Georgia’s Sixth District in Republican hands. She avoided talk of Trump, instead focusing on her track record.
“The people of the Sixth District are going to be looking for someone who’s been part of this community for nearly 25 years,” she told reporters after casting her ballot on Tuesday morning, as several dozen nearby Ossoff supporters chanted “Flip the Sixth.”
Republican officials and voters said Trump is a divisive figure in this educated, affluent and increasingly diverse district.
“Do I agree 100 percent with what he does? God, no. But I believe he has the country’s best interests at heart,” said Jessica Podalsky, who voted for Handel on Tuesday morning.
Ossoff initially campaigned on a promise to “make Trump furious,” but more recently avoided taking on the president as he tried to win over centrist voters. He emphasized local concerns and enlisted few prominent Democrats to campaign on his behalf.
“There’s a lot of national interest, but it’s about voters in the Sixth District who want to see representation that can grow our local economy, improve access to health care and bring accountability to Washington,” he told reporters on Monday.
Trump won the district by just 1 percentage point in last year’s presidential election, giving Democrats a new sense of hope.
“There are more of us than we thought,” said Tricia Gephardt, an Ossoff volunteer.
The seat has been vacant since Trump tapped Republican Tom Price to serve as his health secretary.
Democrats are under pressure to win after steadily losing seats in Congress and at the state level in recent years. They fell short in other special congressional elections earlier this year in Kansas and Montana, and are expected to lose another race on Tuesday in South Carolina.
(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Caren Bohan and Leslie Adler)