Washington (AFP) - Republicans were dealt an unwelcome reminder of Donald Trump's unpopularity Wednesday after a young Democrat's inconclusive but rousing first round victory in a race for a congressional seat long held by the president's party.
Jon Ossoff, 30, fell just short of an outright win with 48.1 percent, but came in first by a wide margin in a crowded field of candidates in Georgia's conservative 6th district, where Tuesday's vote was seen as an early test of strength for the president.
That sets the stage for a battle royale June 20 when Ossoff faces off against second place finisher Karen Handel, a Republican who won just 19.8 percent of the vote but will almost certainly benefit from her party coalescing around her.
Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide, told energized supporters before all the returns were in that he and Democrats "shattered expectations" with their performance.
"There is no doubt that this is already a victory for the ages," Ossoff said.
Trump, his political brand at stake, jumped into the race as voters went to the polls, attacking Ossoff and urging Republicans to vote in a burst of tweets and robocalls.
"Despite major outside money, FAKE media support and eleven Republican candidates, BIG "R" win with runoff in Georgia. Glad to be of help!" he tweeted after the results came in.
Handel said Trump called Wednesday to congratulate her and to let her know "it's all hands on deck for Republicans" going into the runoff.
- Democratic resurgence? -
Democrats still hope Ossoff can capitalize on Trump's lackluster popularity -- his poll numbers lag at around 40 percent, a record low for an incoming president.
As they see it, a win in Georgia could jumpstart efforts to retake control of the House of Representatives in next year's midterm elections.
"I'd rather be Jon Ossoff than Karen Handel right now," Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, told CNN. "The progressive energy out there is palpable and the volunteers are out there. The DNC is all in and other partners all in. I feel good."
Georgia's 6th district is in the relatively affluent and conservative suburbs of Atlanta. It has remained a Republican fortress since 1978 when it was won by Newt Gingrich.
The special election is being held to replace congressman Tom Price, who resigned to become Trump's health secretary.
In the run-up to Tuesday's vote Ossoff had marshalled an army of volunteers, and reportedly amassed millions of dollars in out-of-state contributions by Democratic groups.
Liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org in a statement called Ossoff's first-place finish "a huge triumph for the Resistance and for progressives."
"The reason is clear: voters are rejecting Trump and his policies."
- Grassroots energy -
Part of what is fueling Democratic excitement about the race is that while Trump won Georgia by six percentage points, the district that Ossoff seeks to win supported Trump by barely one point over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
It has many well-educated voters who are reliably Republican but frustrated by Trump.
"This is a Republican district but it is not a strongly Trump district just as there are Democratic districts that are Trump districts," said Tom Cole, a Republican leader in the House of Representatives.
"It does tell you this is the kind of seats that Democrats would and should focus on and where they need to win. Last night they weren't able to do that. We'll see how we did on June 20th," he said on CNN.
The race quickly gained national attention, becoming the 11th most expensive election in House history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported that Republicans and Democrats have spent a combined $14 million on ad blitzes.
Ossoff is an untested candidate. He praises the grassroots organizers who he said are fueling support for his campaign and those of other Democrats considering mounting challenges in Trump-friendly territory.
To date Democrats have been unable to translate such energy into tangible election victories in the Trump era.
Last week, a Democrat challenging for an open congressional seat in a deep-red district in Kansas fell short of an upset.
The Democrat lost that race by seven percentage points, but the party sought to spin the result as a positive, pointing out that Trump won the district in November by 27 points.