Handel stitched pro- and anti-Trump Republicans together, and Ossoff let her

Republican Karen Handel smooches her husband Steve during the election night party in the Sixth District race with Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com
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Republican Karen Handel smooches her husband Steve during the election night party in the Sixth District race with Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Let us first note the graciousness of the victory speech that Republican Karen Handel offered up on Tuesday night, particularly when it came to her mention of Steve Scalise.

He’s the Louisiana congressman wounded by gunfire on a northern Virginia ballfield as the Sixth District contest reached its zenith. As House majority whip, Scalise had watched over Handel’s campaign.

“No one – no one – should ever feel their life threatened over their political beliefs and positions,” said Handel, whose neighborhood was briefly disrupted last week by a mysterious package that required police inspection. “And I say that, ladies and gentlemen, in regard to both sides of the political aisle.”

The former secretary of state then spoke kindly of Democrat Jon Ossoff and gave a shout-out to his supporters.

But the plea for more civility had been preceded by verbal notes of thanks that were just as interesting. The first went, appropriately, to Cobb County commissioners Bob Ott and JoAnn Birrell. Were it not for the huge margin Handel received in Cobb, we would be discussing U.S. Rep. Jon Ossoff, D-Emory.

The first Washington recipient of Handel’s gratitude was U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. Never mind that social media expert currently at the center of three congressional investigations. It was Ryan’s super PAC that allowed Handel to compete financially with Ossoff. Vice President Mike Pence, who came down here for a public rally with Handel, was mentioned by name, too.

But when it came to the fellow who lives in the White House, the guy who Tweeted those nice things about her, Handel gave her specific thanks to “the President of the United States,” carefully avoiding the words “Donald” and “Trump.”

She left it to her audience to fill in the blank. “Trump! Trump! Trump!” they shouted.

And about those several Election Day tweets from @realDonaldTrump, urging her on to victory. An inspection of the official Twitter account of the candidate indicates that only one 140-character message from Trump was ever retweeted by the Handel campaign. That was on April 19, when the president congratulated her for making it into the runoff.

All of which is to say that the first GOP congresswoman from Georgia is headed to Washington this week because she successfully threaded the needle and kept Republicans who love Trump, and Republicans who can’t abide him, stitched together.

Jon Ossoff and the Democratic machine behind him allowed Handel to do it.

Thirty million dollars will buy a lot of second-guessing, but that avalanche of cash is largely spent now. So I’ll offer mine for free. It wasn’t that Jon Ossoff wasn’t a resident of the Sixth District — a fact pointed out by Handel time and again.

No, it was that Ossoff was too much a part of the Sixth, and feared offending Mom and Dad’s old Republican neighbors with attacks that tied his opponent to current events in and current concerns about Washington.

When Handel slipped in a debate, and said she “opposed a livable wage,” Ossoff made no use of the gaffe. Given that the Sixth is well-heeled and minimum-wage earners are often bused in, I can understand why Democrats might have let that pass.

But the entire Sixth District runoff coincided with a Washington debate over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. House Republicans passed their version in early May. Senate Republicans continued to keep their version of Trumpcare — McConnell care? – a very big secret.

A Journal-Constitution poll showed that three-quarters of the Sixth opposed the House repeal of Obamacare, and that Handel’s Republican supporters were fractured on the issue.

Trump, in Atlanta for a National Rifle Association convention, held a closed-door fundraiser for Handel. The president’s Tweets posed daily worries for the Republican candidate in the Sixth.

Yet Ossoff scarcely pressed Handel on any of that.

As a matter of fact, in his quest to label Handel unsuitable for office, Ossoff largely limited himself to attacks with a GOP-stamp of approval. Seriously.

Handel’s purchase of furniture while secretary of state dated to 2010 and earlier, as did her acceptance of a state allowance for her Lexus. And her allegedly spendthrift trade mission to China. The fracas over Handel’s stint at the Susan G. Komen Foundation, a favorite Ossoff topic, occurred in 2012 – several political lifetimes ago.

If you looked carefully, some of the TV attack ads leveled against Handel cited previous Republican primary campaigns as the source for their charges. “If they could say it, so can we,” seemed to be the thinking. “If they didn’t, we can’t.”

National money followed Ossoff’s lead. Federal law stipulates that candidates, who are limited by the amount of cash they can accept from single sources, may not coordinate with groups making independent expenditures. Groups that have no financial limits.

Yet there are ways of passing messages. On May 23, the Ossoff campaign posted silent B-roll material on YouTube that featured: a) a shot of a white Lexus SUV; b) a cushy leather armchair; and c) a private jet. All under the headline, "Karen Handel Spends Your Money on Herself."

The video and its headline/instruction was there for super PACs to use as they wish. And they did.

But if Ossoff was to get past the 48 percent mark he earned last April 18, he needed to split off at least some of the Republicans lined up and ready to vote for his opponent.

In the end, reruns of long-ago GOP primaries didn’t do the trick. Forcing a debate over Donald Trump, health care or both might have. But Ossoff and his fellow Democrats chose not to take the chance.

You have to wonder if the responsibility of spending tens of millions of dollars wisely made the 30-year-old Democrat just a little too risk-averse — conservative would be the wrong word — for his own good.

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