This is one of an occasional series of reports examining the candidates for Georgia’s open U.S. Senate seat in 2014.
Karen Handel says she learned a valuable lesson from her 2010 bid for governor.
“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t lose.”
The former Georgia secretary of state lost by 2,500 votes in a Republican primary runoff to now-Gov. Nathan Deal.
The loss stung. But now, Handel believes her experience will help her in the race for the U.S. Senate. Seven candidates are vying for the GOP nomination for the seat now held by fellow Republican Saxby Chambliss, who plans to retire when his term ends in 2014. The field includes three sitting congressmen and a business executive who is a cousin to former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
But Handel is the only candidate who has won, or even run for, statewide office, which is largely an advantage. She is well known to Republican primary voters, nearly 300,000 of whom voted for her in 2010. She has worked to maintain her statewide network of supporters. And in the time between campaigns she also managed to shore up support among anti-abortion activists, a sizable contingent of the GOP base.
Yet, a question about her 2010 campaign lingers. She struggled to raise money then, and the trend continues in the Senate race.
“People in this state know me,” Handel said. “I have built up a trust factor in this state. People are searching for that individual in who they can trust to help solve some very difficult and complex issues.”
Charlie Harper, the editor of the influential conservative blog PeachPundit, said Handel has done well to remain in the public eye. It’s been three years since she ran for governor, but she did not disappear in between contests.
“Karen did an amazing job of keeping what I would call her base together,” Harper said. “Not because she was planning a political future, but she just stayed in touch with the folks who helped her along the way.”
Handel, of course, also benefited politically from a high-profile split with Susan G. Komen, the national nonprofit that funds breast cancer research. After her gubernatorial bid, Handel became senior vice president for Komen but left the foundation after it backtracked on a decision to sever ties with Planned Parenthood.
Her exit led to a book about her experience and a number of speaking engagements with conservative groups across the country. It also boosted her conservative credentials as one who would fight against abortion, an important improvement over 2010 when a prominent anti-abortion organization doubted her commitment to the cause.
The saga, Harper said, “put her back on the public stage when she was probably trying to figure out what was next.”
“It kept her publicly viable and acceptable to her base as a candidate until this Senate race happened much earlier than people thought with Saxby’s surprise announcement,” Harper said.
The result, he said, is she has something none of the other candidates can claim: a statewide network.
Jade Morey of Byron is part of that network. Morey supported Handel in 2010 and said that race, while unsuccessful, gave her great name recognition and set her up well for 2014.
“She does what she says she’s going to do,” Morey said. “She’s a tough lady, and I trust her to be a steward of the people toward getting our country back on track.”
Just to the west, in Ellijay, veteran Republican activist Joe McCutchen also continues to support Handel in 2014, just as he did in 2010.
“She told me, ‘Joe, I’m going up there and I’m cutting spending,’ ” McCutchen said. “She’s convinced me that she’s going to go there and she’s going to be like a tiger, and she’s going to vote against these spending projects.
“I think she’ll be a super taxpayer champion.”
While Handel’s past campaigns do give her higher name recognition among voters, Georgia State University political science instructor Steve Anthony does not believe that translates into a “natural constituency.”
“Each one of the other major Republicans has a natural constituency, i.e., their congressional districts,” Anthony said. “She has people scattered around the state, and guess what? Many of them are in those congressional districts. Their loyalty is going to be to their congressman.”
Not all of Handel’s 2010 supporters remain on board, either. Clint Murphy actively campaigned for her in 2010 and, ultimately, he said, became friends with Handel.
“She took this really, really hard-core stance and kind of aligned herself with (Texas U.S. Sen.) Ted Cruz, and that kind of surprised me a little bit,” Murphy said.
Murphy, a cancer survivor, was particularly put off by Cruz’s — and Handel’s — adamant belief that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, be repealed.
While there have been obvious problems with the new law’s rollout, Murphy said much good remains in the law.
“People with pre-existing conditions shouldn’t be discriminated against,” he said. “People should be able to stay on their parents’ policy up to age 26. Insurance should not be able to drop people when they get sick.”
Handel’s position, Murphy said, “was repeal, defund, shut the government down.”
“That,” he said, “was way beyond anything I could support.”
Murphy had already contributed more than $1,000 to Handel’s Senate race, but after her comments on health care, he asked for the money back. She sent it.
Handel has said she supports a bill from U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., that would replace Obamacare with legislation that would also protect pre-existing conditions.
It’s crucial for Handel to re-create her 2010 network and limit defections from people such as Murphy, Republican pollster John Garst said. One theme from 2010 that has carried over to 2014 is that Handel faces a significant fundraising challenge.
She was outraised by almost every serious candidate in 2010, and thus far, the same trend continues in the Senate race. Through the Sept. 30 reporting period, Handel has raised about $440,000, compared with U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston’s $1.44 million, U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey’s $1.03 million and U.S. Rep. Paul Broun’s $871,000. David Perdue, the former governor’s cousin, has raised $1.31 million, although nearly half came from his own pocket.
That disparity in fundraising, Garst said, means Handel will need to rely on her statewide network.
“She’s running a campaign that relies much more heavily on social media and much more heavily on personal public appearances, rather than paid media” such as advertising, said Garst, whose firm is not working the Senate race.
In 2010, Handel ran as a reformer. She made ethics a major part of her platform. She pilloried Deal over a congressional ethics investigation and painted the General Assembly as a corrupt boys club. PolitiFact Georgia, just before the August 2010 runoff, rated as “Mostly True” a Deal claim that Handel had run a “100 percent negative” campaign.
Thus far in the Senate race, Handel has maintained her sharp edge. She’s lambasted Broun, Gingrey and Kingston as double-dealers on Obamacare, saying they stood to benefit from special congressional perks in the law.
“Only in Washington can congressmen campaign against Obamacare — while receiving special treatment and thousands in taxpayer subsidies that the rest of us don’t get,” she said in a radio ad released in September.
That message — that she’s the outsider facing veteran politicians — is smart, said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist.
“She’s trying to carve out a niche for herself, that non-incumbent candidate,” he said. “The one not tarnished by holding public office.”
But, Swint said, the challenges of fundraising will be significant, and she’ll likely face questions about 2010.
“She might have to defend how she ran that runoff against Nathan Deal, which was a winnable runoff,” he said.
On the campaign trail, Handel has made strides. In speeches, she sounds more polished than she did four years ago, and now, as a known quantity, she tends to spend less time on her personal biography and more time hammering her message.
Polling in the race has been scarce. An August survey by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed Gingrey leading with 25 percent, followed by Broun at 19 percent, Kingston at 15 percent and Handel at 13 percent. No other candidate was in double digits. Given the poll’s margin of error of 6.1 percentage points, any of the four candidates could be leading.
Handel knows her history of raising money isn’t as good as other candidates, but she vows to build a treasury to win. After all, she said she won the 2010 primary despite being outraised and came close to winning the runoff.
“I’m a proven winner on statewide races,” she said, “and I’ve always shown even if I don’t have the most money, I have enough money.”