Republican Karen Handel has salvaged a seat in traditional conservative Georgia where Democrats had hoped to strike a blow against Donald Trump’s presidency.

Handel, an establishment Republican and former state secretary of state, defeated Democratic challenger and political novice Jon Ossoff by about five percentage points, multiple US networks projected, denying Democrats their first election victory of the year.

Her win marked an impressive rebound from polling that showed her narrowly trailing her rival in the run up to the vote, and signalled that Republican disillusionment about Trump was not as deep as Democrats were counting on.

The result no doubt comes as relief for Republicans who had grown concerned about whether their party, buffeted by the scandals that have plagued the Republican president, could hold the seat in Georgia’s sixth district that became the most expensive congressional race in US history.

“Congratulations to Karen Handel on her big win in Georgia 6th. Fantastic job, we are all very proud of you!” tweeted Trump, who had publicly implored Republicans to troop to the polls to back Handel.

While the White House had played down the national importance of the Georgia race, Trump had gone all in on Handel, and the Republican Party no doubt sees the victory as a shot in the arm as it prepares to fight to preserve its control of Congress in next year’s mid-term elections.

“Tonight, the people of Georgia’s sixth district overwhelmingly voted not only for Karen, but also for President Trump’s agenda of replacing our broken health care system, reforming an outdated tax code, and prioritizing infrastructure investment,” Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.