Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill coined the slogan “all politics is local.” But that once reliable catchphrase felt like a relic Tuesday during the first head-to-head debate in the nationally-watched contest for Georgia’s 6th District congressional seat.
Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel tangled over many of the same big-ticket policy items that dominated last year’s presidential contest, from terrorism to health care and campaign finance.
And as much as the candidates sought to carve out their own space, President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were never far from the foreground during the hour-long debate, which aired live on WSB-TV.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, repeatedly tied Ossoff to Pelosi and the most liberal factions of the Democratic Party. She mentioned the California Democrat, who became the first-ever female speaker of the House in 2007, more than 10 times during the debate.
“Your values are more than 3,000 miles away in San Francisco,” Handel told Ossoff, echoing television advertisements that have recently plastered the 6th District.
A former congressional aide, Ossoff avoided discussing Pelosi and instead repeatedly framed himself as an “independent.” He pivoted to other issues such as investing in the tech sector and elevating American leadership on issues such as climate change.
“We need an independent voice in Congress to hold both parties accountable, to stand up for the U.S. national interests no matter who’s in charge and to stand with our allies in defense of our security,” Ossoff said.
One topic Ossoff diligently avoided: Trump.
Ossoff jumped into the 6th District contest earlier with a pledge to “Make Trump Furious,” but the 30-year-old political newcomer has since largely distanced himself from that rhetoric in a bid to win over independents and wobbly Republicans.
Overall, Handel aligned herself with the president when asked about the biggest items on his agenda, but she also indicated she wasn’t afraid of disagreeing with him. She backed the Trump’s proposal to temporarily block visitors from six primarily Muslim Middle East nations while homeland security officials revamp their vetting process for foreign visitors, but she said she would not support any sort of “religious litmus test.” Handel also was critical of Trump’s constant social media use.
One of the rawest and most emotionally-charged moments of the debate came when the two candidates butted heads on health care. Ossoff said Handel “sees fit to impose her own view on Georgians’ health care decisions,” and cited her short yet high-profile tenure as vice president of public policy at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Handel resigned from the charity in 2012 and later wrote a book called “Planned Bullyhood” about the group’s decision to reverse course on its decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood because of abortion.
“She imposed her own views and cut off funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood,” Ossoff said.
“I have been working on women’s health issues for nearly my entire life,” Handel responded. “I will not be lectured by you or anyone else.”
She said that she was just one of many employees at Komen and that she carried out the decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood after being instructed to do so by the Komen board.
The first local issues emerged more than 30 minutes into the debate, when the candidates were asked about transportation. Ossoff said he would be willing to work with Trump to trigger a national renewal of infrastructure. Handel said the federal government worked best on such issues when it gets out of the way.
Both candidates generally remained smooth and on-message, and they were given time to engage one another on issues such as campaign funding and health coverage.
Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan’s debate team, said Ossoff “came across as quite polished for having less debate experience, but sometimes appeared as robotic and scripted.” Of Handel, he said she “was more aggressive and remained on offense for a good portion of the debate, which could indicate she thinks she is slightly behind in the race and needs to make up some ground in this debate.”
The stakes were high. Tuesday’s debate offered each candidate one of their first real chances to define themselves on their own terms — free from the constraints of 30 and 60-second television and radio ads — before a general audience.
The debate comes two weeks before voters hit the polls in the June 20 runoff to replace Roswell Republican Tom Price, who resigned after 12 years in Congress to serve as Trump’s health secretary.
Outside groups, who are viewing the race as a referendum on Trump’s young presidency and a hint of what could be coming in the 2018 midterms, have pumped millions into building their own narratives about Handel and Ossoff through a barrage of attack ads.
Just how closely watched the contest has become was demonstrated in the hours before the debate, when four outside groups collectively poured an additional $1.3 million into the race — all within roughly two hours of one another.
In total, outside groups, party committees and the two campaigns have spent more than $36 million on the contest so far, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis, making the race by far the most expensive in the history of the House of Representatives.
The pair are only confirmed to make one more televised debate appearance together, Thursday evening on the Atlanta-based PBS station, WABE-TV/PBA 30. A WSB radio debate is possible for next week but has not been confirmed.