After high-profile victory, Handel has kept head low, focused on work

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel greets guests during a breakfast meet and greet at Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Last year’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District was seen as an early test of Democrats’ opposition to President Donald Trump — and the party came up notably short. Roswell Republican Karen Handel won the pricey contest to replace Tom Price in the suburban Atlanta district, which stretches from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County.

Democrats are now back for a second round. They’re hoping this year’s marquee gubernatorial contest, paired with simmering suburban dissatisfaction with Trump, will help them defeat Handel.

The party nominated Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate and former Delta Air Lines flight attendant, to take her on. McBath first got involved in politics after the 2012 death of her son, Jordan Davis, a black teenager who was fatally shot by a white man following a dispute over his music at a Florida gas station. McBath said she was motivated to run for federal office following Congress’ tepid response to recent school shootings.

Handel has highlighted recent votes she cast to beef up school security and mental health funding. She’s focused much of her campaign messaging on longtime GOP issues such as tax cuts and increased defense spending, as well as more bipartisan efforts on opioids and human trafficking.

Political handicappers have given Handel the edge in the district, but McBath has bested the incumbent in fundraising in recent months.

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Last year’s special election made Karen Handel a national star, but the Roswell Republican has largely sought to lie low during her first 15 months in Congress.

After being bombarded with attention by the national press corps ahead of last year’s blockbuster 6th Congressional District contest, Handel has appeared to relish the relative anonymity that comes with being a junior House lawmaker.

She has delved into her work on the House Judiciary Committee. Two of the first bills she shepherded to passage this year were largely technical in nature and corresponded with her work on the panel: One updated the federal review process for mergers, the other a definition of a violent felony.

On social media, Handel has touted bipartisan initiatives she's supported, including measures addressing the opioid crisis and human trafficking, as well as longtime GOP priorities such as tax cuts and increased defense spending.

“I’m really focusing on the results that have been delivered both here in Washington and at home through constituent services,” she said in a recent interview.

But despite Handel's best efforts to keep her head down during her first year in Washington, controversy has sometimes found her.

She was the Republican designee managing the House floor in June when California Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu began playing audio of children crying in an immigration detention center, a forbidden act under the chamber's rules. Video of an aggrieved Handel banging her gavel and ordering Lieu to suspend went viral  — and was quickly capitalized on by Democratic opponent Lucy McBath in a political ad.

McBath has sought to frame Handel as a Donald Trump minion unwilling to stand up to him, including on issues such as trade and family separations, where the congresswoman has aimed to carefully create distance from the president's position without bashing his overall goals.

Handel says this of her arm’s length approach to Trump: “I have worked hard every single day to do my absolute best for the people of the 6th District. And doing that means that sometimes I agree with the president and other times I don’t.”

On the campaign trail, Handel is still the same plucky political street fighter who became Georgia's first Republican secretary of state since Reconstruction and emerged victorious from the most expensive U.S. House race of all time. Handel sees herself as a survivor, one who escaped a rough childhood in Upper Marlboro, Md., and doesn't get enough credit for breaking a glass ceiling to become the state's first Republican congresswoman.

Democrats, she says, are peddling a “radical” platform that would dismantle the country’s border security system and usher in socialized medicine.

This election “is about results versus the rhetoric and the angry resistance, and we have got to prevail,” Handel recently said at a Cobb County GOP breakfast.

Handel has linked McBath to a trio of Democratic heavyweights who are considered political boogeymen in Georgia's GOP circles: Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters. And she has blasted McBath as a sometimes resident of the 6th District with questionable tax records, pointing to the Democrat's two-year stint in Tennessee while improperly claiming a homestead exemption in Cobb County.

McBath has underscored her deep ties to the district and dismissed Handel's accusations as the "baseless" attacks of a career politician.

The 6th Congressional District, which sweeps across Atlanta's northern suburbs from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, has long been considered safe GOP territory. But suburban dissatisfaction with Trump has ratcheted up hopes among Democrats that they can compete there.

That enthusiasm from the left is what swept Jon Ossoff, a previously unknown Democratic congressional aide, into a head-to-head battle with Handel in last year's special election after Tom Price stepped down to become Trump's health chief. Handel ultimately won the contest by 4 percentage points, despite Ossoff raising an unprecedented $30 million and his allies chipping in an additional $8 million.

Democrats are hoping the strength of McBath's personal story, paired with this year's nationally watched gubernatorial contest, will help them wipe out Handel. The gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety has spent nearly $4 million in advertisements in favor of McBath, its former spokeswoman.

Washington Republicans aren't taking their chances. They recently stepped into the race with a $1.4 million commitment to support Handel.

Karen Handel

Age: 56

Handel grew up in Upper Marlboro, Md., and left home at 17 after her alcoholic mother pulled a gun on her. She graduated from high school while working two part-time jobs.

Education: Took courses at Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland but never graduated

Profession: Worked as deputy chief of staff to Marilyn Quayle, the wife of Vice President Dan Quayle, during the George H.W. Bush administration and then worked as the CEO of the North Fulton Chamber and for then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Public office: Served as chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission beginning in 2003 and ran successfully for secretary of state in 2006. After losing bids for governor in 2010 and U.S. senator in 2014, she emerged victorious from a special election to succeed U.S. Rep. Tom Price in 2017.

Issues: Since coming to Congress, Handel has been a vocal booster of her party's tax cuts and deregulatory bills. She's also held several summits in her district about the opioid crisis.

Notable: Handel rose to national prominence in 2012, following a short stint as vice president for policy at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. She engineered the charity's decision to halt its partnerships with Planned Parenthood in 2012, a move that prompted a national firestorm and later gave rise to her memoir, "Planned Bullyhood."

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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