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Jun 21, 5:34 PM EDT

In Georgia, Republicans celebrate while Dems seek upsides


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DUNWOODY, Ga. (AP) -- Republicans say Karen Handel's victory in Georgia's 6th Congressional District proves the GOP is still the dominant party in Georgia.

Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Watson credited Handel for "crushing liberal dreams."

Democrats say Jon Ossoff's 48 percent showing in a Republican stronghold is proof that they're actually making progress toward making Georgia a genuine battleground.

Turns out, both sides can be right this time.

"This was not a cakewalk for them," Ossoff supporter Jen Cox said. "And it never will be again. That's the win for us today."

For eight years living in the traditionally conservative area, Cox kept her mouth shut about politics until she was certain of her neighbors' leanings. Cox, a 47-year-old Realtor and mother of two daughters, co-founded a group this year called "Pave It Blue" focused on backing Ossoff's campaign and other red seats that could be poachable.

Handel backers, though, hailed Tuesday's results as confirmation that the district remains solidly in the party's grasp. "Karen was able to pull Republicans back together," said Jim Phillips, a 69-year-old retiree from Marietta who has volunteered on several Handel campaigns.

He doesn't expect the district's leanings to change in the coming years either, betting that its makeup of well-educated and well-off voters will give Republicans "with a strong platform, a good history and a good record" a path to victory.

Those polar views the day after Handel's 4-point win over Ossoff can be partly attributed to sheer partisanship - voters seeing the world through their party identity. But each side having a base of voters who believe in the strength of their respective parties is itself an ingredient required for competitive politics.

And Ossoff's 48 percent is a higher mark than Democrats have managed in recent statewide races involving less of a GOP advantage than Atlanta's northern suburbs.

That leaves Georgia Democratic Chairman Dubose Porter and other Democrats claiming some hope from Ossoff's defeat as both parties look ahead to the 2018 elections, when Democrats will try to dent Republicans' monopoly on statewide offices and the legislature. All of the state's congressional seats, including Handel's, will be on the ballot as well.

"This was a pretty good fight ... exciting to be a part of," Porter said of the Ossoff race. "It will only get better in 2018."

Democrats have said for several election cycles that the Republican-run state is on the cusp of battleground status - turning from red to purple in the common political parlance. It started with then-Sen. Barack Obama managing 46 percent of the vote here in 2008. Georgia had the narrowest margin of the states that Obama did not win that year.

Yet Democrats have consistently fallen short of their own expectations since. Obama didn't match his first performance in his re-election campaign. Hillary Clinton landed at 45 percent.

Porter and other Democrats ballyhooed their U.S. Senate and gubernatorial nominees in 2014, recruiting a pair of famous Georgia political names and helping them raise millions of dollars to finance credible campaigns. But former Sen. Sam Nunn's daughter Michelle Nunn managed just 45 percent of the vote after an expensive race against Republican David Perdue, now the state's junior senator. Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, fared no better, falling just shy of 45 percent against incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal.

Along the way, Republicans have solidified near-supermajority control of the General Assembly.

The next high-profile test for Georgia Democrats comes in the 2018 governor's race, with at least two of the state party's rising stars running in a primary. Porter said Wednesday that he expects Democrats to field "strong candidates" for every statewide down ballot office - something the party hasn't managed in recent years.

"Expectations have changed. (Democrats) are disappointed with loss and (Republicans) relieved with win. Indicates teams going in different directions," Jason Carter himself noted Wednesday morning on Twitter.

South Carolina Democrats are seeking the same silver lining after Archie Parnell lost a congressional special election there Tuesday night by essentially the same margin as Ossoff. Parnell may have benefited from the lack of national attention on that race, though. Republicans hammered Ossoff in Georgia with ads labeling him the "hand-picked" candidate of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ossoff's campaign was less direct in trying to link Handel with Trump, who barely edged Clinton in November in the 6th District. Handel supporter John Salvesen attributed her more comfortable margin of victory over Ossoff to Republicans determined to defeat a candidate they considered representative of national Democrats - with some encouragement from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

"I really think their involvement was the difference maker," Salvesen, 52, said.

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