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Karen Handel concedes 6th District race in major Dem upset

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel on Thursday conceded to Democrat Lucy McBath in the 6th District congressional race, a major upset that showcased Democrats’ strength in suburbs once dominated by the GOP. 

“After carefully reviewing all of the election results data, it is clear that I came up a bit short on Tuesday,” Handel said in a letter to supporters. “Congratulations to Representative-Elect Lucy McBath and send her only good thoughts and much prayer for the journey that lies ahead for her.” 

McBath declared victory in the race Wednesday afternoon after narrowly leading Handel by several thousand votes. 

The suburban 6th District, which includes portions of Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties, was home last year to the most expensive congressional race of all time. In that special election to replace Tom Price, Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff by 4 percentage points after tens of millions of dollars was spent to sway voters. 

This year’s contest did not generate nearly as much attention as donors and outside political groups focused on the Georgia governor’s race and fights outside the state. 

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McBath will become the first person of color to represent the 6th District. She is the third African-American woman Georgia has sent to the U.S. House.

A surrogate for the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, McBath said pushing for new gun control policies will be her “top priority” upon arriving in Washington. 

“We’ve sent a strong message to the entire country. Absolutely nothing - no politician & no special interest - is more powerful than a mother on a mission,” tweeted McBath, a former flight attendant who became a gun control advocate after her teenage son Jordan Davis was fatally shot following a racially-charged dispute in 2012. 

Once represented by Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Price, the 6th District was until recently considered safe Republican territory. Mitt Romney carried the district by 24 percentage points in 2012 but Donald Trump won it by less than 2 percentage points four years later. 

Handel’s ouster came after Republicans struggled on election night in many suburban seats that were once friendly to the party, including in states like Texas and Kansas. Disdain for Trump, paired with a groundswell of energy on the left, helped turn the tide.

McBath also benefited from elevated turnout from the governor’s race as suburban voters  overwhelmingly backed Democrat Stacey Abrams. 

Another suburban Atlanta House seat in the neighboring 7th District was still too close to call on Thursday morning as incumbent Republican Rob Woodall clung to a narrow lead over Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux. 

McBath and Bourdeaux both tapped into national fundraising networks to raise millions in their quests to unseat their incumbent opponents. They received significant assists from liberal mega-donor Michael Bloomberg on Atlanta television, which helped raise their profiles. 

Outside political groups largely stayed out of the Atlanta contests as they focused their attention elsewhere, giving the Democrats room to define themselves on their own terms. And Washington Republicans did not step in to assist Handel in a major way until two weeks ago

Handel’s campaign strategy was dual-tracked. 

In her television advertisements and social media, she largely focused on selling her party’s policy victories, including the GOP tax cuts, opioid legislation and anti-human trafficking bills. But on the stump she more pointedly attacked McBath, assailing her for her personal finances, brief stint living in Tennessee and connections to Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi

When it came to Trump, Handel adopted an arm’s length approach. She campaigned with him in 2017 but skipped his Macon rally on Sunday. And she carefully created distance from him on  tariffs and family separations without criticizing him directly. 

McBath, meanwhile, hit Handel for not standing up to the president and played up her own personal story. She would start many of her stump speeches by saying she was “still always going to be Jordan’s mom.” 

The Democrat also campaigned heavily on supporting Obamacare and expanding Medicaid. She was endorsed by former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, whom she campaigned for in 2016. 

Handel thanked her supporters in a statement on Thursday. 

“When I was elected last year, I promised to give you my all in representing you and the entire District. I've done my absolute best to do that – every moment of every day,” said the former secretary of state and Fulton County Commission chairwoman. 

McBath will replace Handel as the only female lawmaker in Georgia’s 16-member congressional delegation. Her seat will become an instant target for Republicans seeking revenge in 2020. 

Read more about McBath here

About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.

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