In a Sixth District debate, Donald Trump becomes the invisible man

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare to debate ahead the June 20 runoff for the 6th Congressional District seat, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

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Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare to debate ahead the June 20 runoff for the 6th Congressional District seat, Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Atlanta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

So it turns out that Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel agree on something. Two things, actually.

First, Tuesday night’s televised debate proved that they share identical definitions of the phrase “with all due respect.”

Each made clear, as they ever-so-politely batted that particular string of words back and forth, that it really means something south of “you conniving layer of pond scum.”

Their eyes told us that they do not like each other. Handel sees a wet-behind-the-ears, Democratic boy toy for Nancy Pelosi, the queen of California. Ossoff looks on her as a has-been who struggles under an outdated load of GOP primary slogans.

But something far more important was revealed by the hour-long confrontation on WSB-TV: Both Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff would have us believe that President Donald Trump does not exist.

Not in the Sixth District.

Neither one would mention Trump voluntarily. They had to be driven to it. When asked where she disagreed with the president, Handel replied, “I am troubled about the deep cuts in scientific research and cancer research” — perhaps anticipating the harsher discussion to come.

But she didn’t mention Trump by name.

Ossoff was asked if he considered the Sixth District race part of the “summer of resistance” to Trump declared by Democrats. “I hope to have the opportunity to work with the president, to get things done for Georgia,” he replied.

Ossoff wouldn’t mention Trump by name, either.

Now, let us be clear. There is a 70-year-old man with a battleship of a comb-over named Donald Trump, and he lives in the White House. He really, truly exists.

Further, Trump is the reason we’re having this Sixth District contest — and not just because he picked Tom Price as his health care czar.

Ossoff shouldn’t be neck-and-neck with Handel in a reliably Republican congressional district. But this week, the Gallup polling organization reported that, nationwide, Democrats now have a generic, seven percentage point edge over Republicans – a margin that harkens back to the last days of the George W. Bush administration.

Do all of those seven points extend to Georgia? Certainly not. But Democrats here are benefiting enough to make Republicans sweat.

Yet despite the fact that Trump is driving this Georgia train, Handel and Ossoff would prefer you to believe that the clothes have no emperor. They both have reasons for not talking about him.

To win on June 20, Ossoff needs to woo moderate Republicans and independents to his side. If he bashes Trump personally, Ossoff risks offending those who might have voted for the businessman in November, but have since changed their minds.

And so others — i.e. Super PACs – are doing the bashing for him.

For her part, Handel needs to reclaim GOP-inclined women who were so chafed by the idea of Donald Trump that they fled into the Hillary Clinton camp last year. Which is why that Atlanta fundraiser that Trump threw for her was closed to the press — photographers, in particular.

In fact, one might say that the first Sixth District candidate to invoke Trump loses. If Trump were a nuclear weapon, we would call this a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. And even though he’s not, the acronym may still apply.

Yet there is a bright side to this situation. Since the two candidates dared not talk about Trump on Tuesday night, they were forced to talk about themselves. Or not.

Both candidates were asked if they would support the extension of MARTA-like rail into the Sixth. Both ducked — unfortunately for gridlocked voters in the district. Each declined to say if they would vote to go to war with Iran, even if the facts were appropriate. And there was comfort in that.

Handel said she wouldn’t bend when it came to raising taxes. Ossoff said he wouldn’t compromise when it came to voting rights.

Ossoff said he supported an increase in the minimum wage, and Handel said she did not. Although the way she said it – "I do not support a liveable wage" — needed polishing.

With a thinner resume, Ossoff made a smaller target. But Handel couldn’t say “Pelosi” often enough, or “California, New York and Massachusetts” — as Ossoff’s alleged main sources of financing for his campaign. “Junior staffer” for U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson was a favored description.

Handel also came away with two "how dare you" moments — though they may cost her. When the former secretary of state expressed her support for the House Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Ossoff said she had just endorsed an end to insurance protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Handel turned that into an attack on her sister, whom she said had been born without an esophagus. “For you to suggest that I would do anything that would negatively affect her is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable,” Handel said.

But the facts are with Ossoff on that one. Which is why Senate Republicans have all but abandoned the measure.

The pair also got into an extended discussion of Handel’s 2012 role as senior vice president of public policy for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, when the organization attempted to cut off funds to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer-screening. Komen retreated, and Handel made a high-profile exit.

"I have held the hands of friends who have fought breast cancer and other types of reproductive cancer. And I will not – not — be lectured by you or anyone else," Handel said.

On Tuesday, Handel described herself as a cog in the Komen wheel. “For anyone to think that, as one individual employee, I was able to wave a magic wand and make something like that happen — it was a business decision, ultimately decided by the board of Komen,” she said.

But Ossoff was able to argue that, during her unsuccessful primary run for U.S. Senate, Handel had put herself at the “center” of that drama.

All in all, it was a good debate. And if ignoring Trump gives us a better picture of who Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel are, then perhaps that’s a fair trade-off.

Presumably, the situation will extend to today's Sixth District debate. The original broadcast will be at 9 a.m. on WABE (90.1 FM). A televised version is scheduled for 7 p.m. on PBA 30.

If you like, make it a drinking game. One shot for every voluntary mention of the word T-R-U-M-P. At the end of the debate, chances are you’ll be stone cold sober.


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