Why Was the Georgia Congressional Race the Most Expensive in History?

Georgia's 6th Congressional district Republican candidate Karen Handel gives a victory speech to supporters gathered at the Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina on June 20, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Republican Karen Handel won a tightly fought congressional race in Georgia Tuesday against Democrat challenger Jon Ossoff, in a race billed as a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump so far.

The election was the most expensive in congressional history, with at least $57 million spent by the campaigns and outside groups, nearly twice the previous record set in Florida in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The amount spent was particularly striking given the brevity of the campaign, with the candidates only emerging as the two chief contenders after an initial round of voting in April.

The election was held to fill the seat vacated by Tom Price, after Trump appointed him secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

So why was so much money poured into the race, and who is behind it?

The bulk of the money raised by the campaigns went to Ossoff. Most of the $23.6 million donated to the Democrat was from large Democrat states such as New York and California, according to New York Times analysis of campaign contributions. Aided by national liberal groups, Ossoff received money from nearly 200,000 small dollar donors.

By contrast, Handel's $4.5 million in donations mostly came from within Georgia itself.

The Republican though had greater support from party committees and super PACS, which spent $18 million on Handel — mostly running attack ads on her opponent. The groups raise their money from individuals and corporations across the U.S.

The fact that the bulk of the money was from people who could not vote for either candidate is due to the fact that while victory would not have had a significant impact on Democrat attempts to seize back control of Congress, where they are in a minority of 24 seats, it would have been seen as a major blow for Trump.

The election had represented the best chance for the Democrats to flip a Republican stronghold in the Trump era, with the district having voted Republicans to Congress since the 1970s. With Price amongst the architects of Trump's healthcare reform and longstanding critic of Obamacare, seizing his former seat would have been particularly sweet for Democrats.

The president is currently under pressure from several investigations into his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, and promised healthcare and tax reform has stalled in Congress. His approval rating has fallen to 36 percent according to a new CBS poll.

Though the campaign mainly focussed on local issues, Trump waded in to express his support for Handel in the final days of the campaign, and gloated at the Democrats' loss.

But having lost their third special election in a row, the Democrats must now ask how they can capitalize on growing discontent with Trump. With the party effectively leaderless and divided between economic populists supportive of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and centrists such as Ossoff, a long hard climb lies before the Democrats should they hope to seize Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.