In 6th District debate, Ossoff and Handel clash over Komen and Comey

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff squared off Thursday morning for what is likely their final debate. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff squared off Thursday morning for what is likely their final debate. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

In a second tense debate on Thursday, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel clashed over highly-politicized issues as they assailed each other over climate change policy, healthcare changes and the specter of Russian interference in the U.S. election.

The two honed their messages to distinct audiences in the 6th District contest: Handel tried to rev up a conservative base with tried-and-true pitches while Ossoff attempted to walk a more delicate line to appeal to liberals and enough moderates and independents to win.

In a race where Donald Trump has played a central role, both wrestled with former FBI director Jim Comey’s testimony that the president tried to interfere into the investigation. And the two candidates had another heated exchange over Handel’s controversial role at a breast-cancer charity.

It was another feisty showdown marked by sharp words from Handel — at one time she tersely told Ossoff “with all due respect, do not interrupt me” – and biting responses by the Democrat.

Multiple times, the two accused each other of misstating facts. “Voters need to know that,” he said over one disagreement over healthcare. “And candidates need to know that, too.” Later, she interrupted him to counter what she said was a falsehood, and in her closing called him “deceptive, fake Jon Ossoff.”

The two are at the center of the most expensive U.S. House contest in the nation’s history, and both parties are desperate for a victory. Republicans have long held the suburban Atlanta district, but Democrats hope Trump’s struggles could give them an opening.

‘Not there yet’

Held just minutes before Comey’s blockbuster testimony, both candidates faced challenges over how to respond. For Handel, it was a particularly vexing issue: After holding him at arm’s length in the early part of the campaign, she embraced the president after she won a spot in the June 20 runoff.

Pressed by moderator Denis O’Hayer, who noted she held a fundraiser with Trump in late April, Handel pleaded for patience with the investigations while also trying to assert her independence from the president.

“Let’s let the facts go where they need to go on this. President Trump is the President, and having his support – I’m happy to have his support. But I’m also happy to have, frankly, the support of the people of the Sixth District,” she said, adding: “I understand full well that I am not an extension of the White House. I am an extension of the people of the Sixth District.”

Ossoff tried to navigate his own divide. Even as liberals call for impeachment proceedings, many Democrats are wary that such talk could turn off the independents they will need to flip GOP strongholds such as the 6th District.

He said he was outraged by Russia’s attempts to interfere with the election and said it demands a “firm response and a transparent, independent investigation.” But he stopped short of calling for Trump’s impeachment.

“We’re still not there yet,” said Ossoff.

‘Collapsing in on itself’

The two revived the fiercest exchanges from Tuesday’s debate, arguing again over the GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Handel’s role at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Handel said replacing Obamacare is a top priority, saying that the system is “collapsing in on itself.” She said her own health insurance premiums under the exchange have quadrupled.

Ossoff pointed to government projections that the plan would leave more than 20 million without insurance, and he pushed back on Handel’s claims that the measure has enough funding to help those with pre-existing health conditions.

“I appreciate you sharing your personal story,” Ossoff said after Handel talked of her sister’s serious medical condition. “But the facts are the facts … This bill guts protections for Georgians who have pre-existing conditions.”

Handel swiped back, saying Ossoff was wrong while invoking the House’s Democratic leader, a favorite foil of the GOP: “I guess Jon, you subscribe to the Nancy Pelosi style — just pass it and then you’ll read it.”

The measure bans health insurers from limiting access to coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, but allows states to let insurers charge people more. Experts warn that high-risk pools meant to keep premiums lower for sick people might not be effective.

When Ossoff was asked whether he supported a “single-payer” healthcare system, an idea that conservatives fear will lead to runaway costs, the Democrat didn’t give a direct answer: “I think we need a lot less ideology around healthcare, and a lot more of a focus on how we can make progress on a bipartisan basis.”

From there, the two scrapped over Handel’s time at the breast-cancer charity, where she served as a vice president of public policy during a controversial decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood. The move made her a hero to religious conservatives and propelled her to the national spotlight.

Calling it a self-serving political move, Ossoff said it cost the foundation millions of dollars and made it harder for women to get health screenings and other treatment.

Handel, who asserted in Tuesday’s debate that she didn’t “engineer” that move, dropped that line of response on Thursday.

“I led the effort to find a way to have those dollars that were going to an organization that did not even provide mammograms, cannot legally provide mammograms, be reinvested,” she said.

(Planned Parenthood doesn’t perform mammograms but conducts hundreds of thousands of breast-cancer screenings each year.)

‘Why we have scientists’

One of the testiest exchanges between the two rivals was over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Accords, a pollution-cutting international compact aimed at slowing climate change.

Calling it a “very bad deal for America and Americans,” Handel said she’s confident Trump will renegotiate the agreement. She said there are “clearly” changes in the climate, but did not say whether she believed the temperature changes are caused by human activity.

“I am not a scientist, so I read all of that and take it all in,” she said. “What I am set on is making sure we do the right thing in the right way. I don’t think a single person in this room, regardless of their political persuasion, disagrees with the fact that we must be responsible stewards of our environment. But let’s do it in the right way.”

That brought a quick retort by Ossoff:

“Well, neither of us are scientists. That’s why we have scientists,” he said. “And 97 percent of scientists, as well as the military and the intelligence community, agree that climate change is a threat to our security and prosperity and that it’s driven in part by human activity.”