President Donald Trump declared that it was "Hollywood vs. Georgia" after Democrat Jon Ossoff fell just short of an outright win in the state's staunchly conservative 6th district Tuesday night.
Trump, redrawing partisan battle lines, called Republican Karen Handel Wednesday morning to congratulate her on winning the chance to face Ossoff in the June 20 runoff. Democrats' biggest asset at the moment is the national outpouring of anti-Trump activism, which included boosts from celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson and Chelsea Handler ahead of Tuesday's contest. But Republicans, including the president, are trying to use that against Ossoff by painting him as a tool of outside forces.
The special election for the House seat vacated by Tom Price, who stepped down to become Health and Human Services secretary, is seen as the first key test of each party's health in the Trump era.
Both sides poured millions of dollars into the first round of voting.
Ossoff took 48 percent of the vote in the unusual 18-candidate race, according to the Georgia Secretary of State, but he needed 50 percent to avoid a runoff.
Now, the race has simplified, with Trump and the GOP coalescing behind Handel and Democrats and the so-called "resistance" behind Ossoff.
The two candidates projected confidence Wednesday, with Ossoff telling MSNBC he is "ready to move forward and win in June."
"I'm thrilled by the result," the 30-year-old candidate told MSNBC's Stephanie Ruhle. "If you had told anyone a couple of months ago that a Democratic candidate would be able to build a coalition this broad with this much grassroots support, come in first place by these kinds of margins in a district that hasn't been competitive for decades, they would've been shocked."
Handel, appearing on CNN, said she hopes Trump would campaign for her in the district, even though he dramatically underperformed other Republicans there last November. "It's all hands on deck for us," she said.
"For the people of the 6th District, it has always been about who will be best served and who has the values aligned with the 6th District," Handel added on Fox News.
At her election party the night before, Handel said Hollywood elitists and Washington Democrats like Nancy Pelosi were trying to "steal a seat" that has been held by GOP lawmakers like Newt Gingrich and Price.
Trump echoed the sentiment in a series of tweets Wednesday.
"Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia. Great job Karen Handel! It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th," Trump wrote, referring last week's narrower-than-expected special election in Kansas.
Samuel L. Jackson recorded a radio ad for Ossoff while actress Alyssa Milano helped drive voters to the polls. Hollywood producers were among the 95 percent of Ossoff donors from outside Georgia.
Ossoff made a similar case against Handel, warning that conservative "dark money" groups would drown the district in phony attack ads.
Despite raising a record-breaking $8.3 million in the first three months of the year, Ossoff was still outspent by Republicans almost two-to-one on advertising, according to the analytics firm Echelon Insights.
Three outside conservatives groups alone spent a cumulative $5 million on ads attacking the Democrat.
"There's no doubt that mega-donors eager to protect the rigged system in Washington will pour millions in corporate special interest money into this race," said Tiffany Muller, the executive director of End Citizens United, which raised more than $800,000 for Ossoff.
But Ossoff's out-of-state donations have become a major vulnerability for a candidate who doesn't actually live in the district (he lives a few miles away and plans to move back if he wins).
Republicans are painting him as too liberal, too young, and too out-of-touch with Georgia to represent a district once held by Newt Gingrich.
"I think he got 8 million dollars and like 12 bucks from Georgia," South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham joked on Fox News Business. "I mean it was an unbelievable amount of money. So all the mad liberals have been sending him money."
Handel raised far less money than Ossoff, but 90 percent of people who contributed more than $200 to her campaign were from the Georgia, according to Atlanta Journal Constitution.
"The best chance a Hollywood-backed liberal Democrat had of winning a Georgia House race just came and went. No amount of momentum, media hype or money could push Jon Ossoff over the finish line, and he now begins a two-month slog toward political irrelevance," said Colin Reed of the conservative super PAC America Rising.
Ossoff defended himself by noting he raised more money from Georgia than any other candidate in the race. That sum was just swamped by his unprecedented national fundraising.
"I grew up in this district, I grew up in this community, and I'm proud to say that more Georgians have made contributions to my campaign than to any other candidate in the race this campaign," he said on MSNBC.
And Ossoff can count on plenty of help from around the country.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, who is heading to Georgia Thursday, said the DNC is "all in."
"I'd rather be Jon Ossoff right now than Karen Handel," he said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "I'm actually very optimistic. You see this energy everywhere across America. I mean, I've been traveling across the country this week and the energy is palpable. And we're going to translate that energy into more votes."
And one of the top Democrats in the state, Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, batted away the "Georgia values" talk by noting the 6th Congressional District has become younger and more diverse since Gingrich represented it.
"The Georgia electorate is changing," she said in a statement. "Tonight's results prove Jon Ossoff is running an extraordinary campaign that is in line with our values as Georgians, energizing a diverse coalition of voters in the 6th district, and illuminating Democratic opportunities like never before."