Washington (AFP) - Republicans faced a sobering reminder of Donald Trump's unpopularity Wednesday after a young Democrat forced a run-off election in a conservative congressional district, highlighting the vulnerability of the president's party as opponents draw inspiration for fierce battles ahead.
Harnessing clear frustration and dissatisfaction with the new president, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff came in first by a wide margin in a crowded field of candidates in Georgia's 6th district, securing 48.1 percent of the vote.
But he fell just short of an outright majority in Tuesday's special election to fill the seat of now-Health Secretary Tom Price, setting the stage for a June 20 face-off against the second-place finisher, Republican Karen Handel.
The race is seen as an early test of strength for the president, and Ossoff insisted his performance in a district held by Republicans since 1979 showed Trump's party is beatable on their own turf in the current political landscape.
That is crucial if Democrats are to have a shot at reaching their stated objective: reclaiming control of the House of Representatives in next year's mid-term elections.
"We defied the odds and shattered expectations -- and we are ready to fight on and win in June. Onward to victory," Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide who campaigned on the idea he would be a check against Trump, said Wednesday on Twitter.
Handel, Georgia's former secretary of state, won 19.8 percent of the vote. But there were numerous Republicans in the race, and in aggregate they secured 51 percent, compared to 49 percent for Democrats, a sign Ossoff has a challenge before him to flip the district.
Ossoff was quick to declare "a victory for the ages" for Democrats. But Trump, his political brand at stake, painted an opposing picture.
"Dems failed in Kansas and are now failing in Georgia," Trump tweeted, referring to last week's congressional race in a Wichita suburb where the Democrat fell short of an upset. "It is now Hollywood vs. Georgia on June 20th."
Trump and top Republicans pointed to high-profile liberals and out-of-state Democratic groups funneling millions of dollars into a race showcasing their effort to nick the president and his party, only to come up short.
"They ran to win last night and they lost," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters. "They came up short."
Spicer left open the possibility that Trump campaigns in Georgia ahead of the run-off.
- 'Progressive energy' -
Democrats still hope Ossoff can capitalize on Trump's lackluster popularity -- his poll numbers lag at around 40 percent, a record low for a new president.
As they see it, a win in Georgia could jumpstart efforts to retake the House in 2018.
"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."
Liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org in a statement called Ossoff's first-place finish in the relatively wealthy, conservative Atlanta suburbs "a huge triumph for the Resistance and for progressives."
"The reason is clear: voters are rejecting Trump and his policies."
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.
"This is a Republican district but it is not a strongly Trump district," House Republican Tom Cole said of the sixth district, home to many well-educated voters who are reliably Republican but frustrated by the new president.
"It does tell you this is the kind of seat that Democrats would and should focus on," he told CNN.
While Democrats can savor the moral victory of nearly snatching a seat outright in a Republican stronghold, they will need to translate anti-Trump fury and substantial fundraising into concrete ballot-box results if they are to mount a viable comeback.
Last week in Kansas, a Democrat came within seven points of winning the race for CIA Director Mike Pompeo's old seat, in a district that Trump won by 27 points in November.
Another congressional battle will play out late next month in conservative-leaning Montana, where voters will pick a replacement for Republican Ryan Zinke, who has become Trump's US interior secretary.