With a small percentage of votes uncounted because of a balloting glitch, Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old former Democratic congressional aide and filmmaker making his first run for public office, easily finished in first place. But he narrowly missed the 50%-plus-one-vote mark that would have given him the seat outright.
Instead he will meet Republican Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, in the June 20 runoff.
Ossoff had fought for a majority vote with the help of millions of dollars from restive activists, most of them outside the district. The Republican onslaught against him — which included robocalls to voters from Trump — means he now faces a tougher challenge, as GOP voters have the opportunity to coalesce around one candidate instead of being split among nearly a dozen.
Still, his finish was remarkable given that the district is strongly Republican in registration. Until February, the seat was held by Trump's new Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price.
In remarks delivered while vote counting was stalled, Ossoff said his standing represented a victory, regardless of the runoff.
"We have defied the odds. We have shattered expectations," he told a screaming crowd of supporters. "We are changing the world and your voices are going to ring out across this state and across this country. We will be ready to fight on and win in June if it is necessary."
The fight over Georgia's 6th Congressional District is a precursor of what is expected to be a huge battle for the House in 2018, assuming that Trump remains unpopular. Republicans hold a margin of more than 40 House seats at present, and the only opportunities for gains by Democrats rest on flipping seats where voters are somewhat ambivalent about the new president.
Special election races in an off year are unreliable as predictors of elections to follow, but both sides were grasping at Tuesday's results to generate momentum. The Georgia race is one of four to be contested this spring in districts with vacancies caused by the elevation of incumbents to senior positions in the Trump administration.
Republicans retained a House seat in Kansas last week, although their margin of victory was about 20 percentage points smaller than typical for the conservative area surrounding Wichita — a result taken by both parties as a sign of Democratic enthusiasm and GOP discontent.
The northern suburbs of Atlanta loomed as a better shot for Democrats. The district is home to the sort of highly educated voters, many of them women or nonwhite, who had spurned Trump during his presidential run in 2016.
Trump carried the district by less than 2 points, dramatically lower than the margin won by the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. Price, in the same election as Trump, won his race by more than 20 points.
The site of the battle also had symbolic value beyond the district's borders. The 6th District was long represented by Newt Gingrich, and served as the incubator for the anti-establishment Republican majorities that took hold in the 1990s and helped to ultimately propel Trump.
Trump did not endorse a candidate in the crowded Republican field but openly encouraged party members to show up Tuesday and deny Ossoff an outright victory. Since Monday, he delivered six tweets either criticizing Ossoff — often misleadingly — or asking voters to side with a GOP candidate.
"Republicans must get out today and VOTE in Georgia 6. Force runoff and easy win! Dem Ossoff will raise your taxes-very bad on crime & 2nd A.," Trump tweeted Tuesday. After midnight East Coast time, he tweeted that the results were a "BIG 'R' win" and that he was "Glad to be of help!"
Ossoff argued that the race centered on local values, although the Democratic machinery aiding him made it clear that embarrassing Trump was high on the agenda. National Democratic groups mounted a fierce early-voting push, recorded robocalls from Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and fanned out across the district to implore voters to deliver a negative verdict on the president.
"I think we need some fresh leadership and some fresh ideas in Congress," Ossoff told interviewer Chuck Todd on MSNBC on Tuesday afternoon. He insisted that if elected he would not seek to block Trump but would work with anyone of either party to "represent this district effectively."
National Republican groups spent millions against Ossoff, but the differing arguments forwarded by the GOP candidates spoke to the disarray that has marked the party's message. Second-place finisher Handel is a longtime ally of Price's; she played up that connection and cast herself as independent when it came to Trump. Another Republican, businessman Bob Gray, declared himself happy to work with Trump to achieve the president's goals.
The ambitions of both parties were evident in the affluent neighborhoods that dot the district. Unlike in previous years, when Republicans were expected to easily win, bright blue signs dotted manicured lawns. On Tuesday, campaign banners urging Georgians to "Vote Blue" and "Flip the Sixth" were draped over a bridge on one of the main highways that cuts through the district — until they were removed by Georgia Department of Transportation workers.
Republicans in the late days of the campaign focused on the fact that Ossoff was unable to vote for himself, because he does not reside in the district. Trump added to the criticism by Twitter.
Members of Congress are not required to live in their districts, but Ossoff took pains to remind voters that he grew up in the area and has been residing 10 minutes from the district border while his girlfriend finishes medical school.
"It is my home," he told CNN. "My family is still there."
Decker reported from Los Angeles and Jarvie from Atlanta.
10:42 p.m.: This article was updated to confirm there will be a runoff.