U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell, on election night last year. Curtis Compton,ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

The only Georgia Republican woman ever elected to Congress wants a re-match

Karen Handel has returned.

If that sounds terse, consider that the above sentence is two words longer than Monday’s emailed announcement that she wants her Sixth District congressional seat back:

“I’m running,” was all Handel wrote. There was a video, of course. And we’ll get to that.

To earn the right to face down U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, the woman who beat her five months ago, Handel must get past at least one GOP primary opponent, state Sen. Brandon Beach of Alpharetta.

Beach is an influential, six-year Capitol veteran. Yet Handel remains the most experienced female campaigner the Georgia GOP has, despite last November’s defeat and two previous statewide losses. Even if her stint in Washington lasted only 17 months, she’s still the first and only Republican woman this state has ever elected to Congress.

And with President Donald Trump on the ballot, 2020 is nearly guaranteed to be a gender-driven election season, just like 2018 — only more so.

Handel will be pitching herself as the presumptive favorite in an effort to prove that last November’s loss of the Sixth District was a 3,264-vote hiccup, and not the beginnings of a permanent, philosophical rift between the GOP and the suburban women of metro Atlanta.

Though long anticipated, Handel’s timing was something of a surprise. To avoid weak fundraising numbers, candidates for federal office often wait to enter a contest until the beginning of a new campaign fundraising period — which in this case is next week.

But other events on the calendar may have intervened.

Beach, her primary opponent, had scheduled a major fundraiser for Wednesday, intended to showcase support from the likes of state lawmaker (and briefly, House speaker) Mark Burkhalter, former Braves pitcher John Smoltz, and notable GOP donors Charles Tarrbutton and Virgil Williams.

Handel obviously thought it important that those writing checks to Beach know she’s watching.

On Tuesday, Handel then let it be known that six of nine Republican members of the U.S. House from Georgia have endorsed her comeback: Tom Graves of Ranger, Doug Collins of Gainesville, Drew Ferguson of West Point, Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville, Austin Scott of Tifton and Buddy Carter of Pooler.

(On the other hand, the fact that three GOP congressmen from Georgia – Barry Loudermilk of Cassville, Rick Allen of Augusta, and Jody Hice of Monroe — chose not to immediately side with her is also a reminder that Handel hasn’t always been a unifying force within her party.)

But another event may have encouraged Handel’s early entrance: Last week’s defeat of the referendum to bring MARTA into Gwinnett County.

Beach is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and a member of the Legislature’s MARTA oversight committee. He’s advocated for a regional mass transit system.

You’ll recall that we previously reported that last week’s MARTA referendum was originally intended to be placed on the November 2018 ballot. Easy passage was expected. Instead, the vote was moved to the low-turnout date of March 19 at the urging of House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton.

Most assumed that Jones wanted to protect Republican state lawmakers from the coming anti-Trump backlash. Many transit advocates suspect that Jones also wanted to see the Gwinnett referendum lose – in order to put the brakes on a similar movement in neighboring north Fulton County.

The Gwinnett defeat has thus chilled one of Beach’s hottest talking points.

As for Handel, it’s clear that – judging by the 90-second video we mentioned — she’ll run against U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the women of a newly elected Democratic progressive wing. The video re-introduction features U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, now a Democratic presidential candidate. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York flashes by, along with her “Green New Deal.”

But most important, the Handel video also focuses on U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Somali-American Muslim who has provoked a split in the House Democratic caucus over her remarks about American Jewish support for Israel.

The Sixth District includes portions of east Cobb County, the city of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs – and thus some of the largest Jewish communities in the Southeast. Handel will do her best to tie McBath and Omar together. Voters in the Sixth will need to study up on Mideast policy.

In that video, Handel alludes to McBath’s past role as a spokeswoman for a Michael Bloomberg group intent on curbing gun violence. “Imagine if we had … leaders more interested in doing their jobs than being a celebrity,” Handel says. “Imagine if those leaders actually lived in our communities.”

But there are two things that go unmentioned in Handel’s comeback video: Donald Trump, and abortion.

If you ask McBath strategists, they’re quite happy to see Handel jump in. They know she will pull the GOP field – whether it ultimately numbers two, three or four candidates — rightward. It’s already happening: Last week, Beach voted for House Bill 481, the anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill intended to outlaw most abortions after six weeks — before most women know they are pregnant.

No exit polls covered the Sixth District contest last November, but McBath strategists are certain that white, college-educated women – perhaps as many as 54 percent — provided the Democrat with her winning margin.

One of the most overlooked aspects of that contest was McBath’s closing 30-second TV ad. It led with this accusation: “Karen Handel voted to lock up doctors who perform abortions.”

Unless my recollection is faulty, you’d have to go back at least to the 1990s to find another Georgia Democrat who won a competitive race with a pro-choice message on TV. But the McBath campaign is sure that it worked.

Which means that it’s likely to happen again in 2020 – especially with the “heartbeat” bill now moving through the state Capitol.

That’s just one more reason that the contest for the Sixth District will get more than its share of national attention. Again.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.