Comey’s ouster opens another divide in 6th District race

President Donald Trump’s decision to abruptly fire the director of the FBI amid a criminal probe into whether his campaign colluded with the Russian government opened a gaping new divide in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District race.

Republican Karen Handel applauded Trump’s decision to fire James Comey, saying in a statement that his ouster was “probably overdue.” Her opponent, Jon Ossoff, echoed many fellow Democrats in calling for a special prosecutor to “investigate Russian interference” in last year’s vote.

It’s yet another clear contrast between the candidates in the June 20 runoff to represent the district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County. The contest is considered a must-win for Republicans, who have held the suburban stretch for decades and are hoping to avoid an embarrassing upset.

In her statement, Handel makes no mention of the calls from Democrats, and an increasing number of Republicans, for an independent investigation into whether Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. She said Comey had squandered the trust of the American people.

“It’s been clear for some time that FBI Director Comey has lost the confidence of Republicans, Democrats and broader institutions, and his removal as FBI director was probably overdue,” she said. “I hope that the president will quickly nominate a strong, independent leader as the next director of the FBI and that the Senate will consider the nomination as quickly as possible.”

Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, sought to sidestep Trump's controversies throughout her campaign for the seat. But since her No. 2 finish among 18 candidates in the April 18 vote, she has more aggressively embraced the president, who has assailed Ossoff in tweets and hosted a fundraiser for her.

Ossoff said on Twitter late Tuesday that Comey’s ouster raises “severe questions,” and he urged bipartisan support behind an independent commission to investigate a possible link between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Other Georgia Democrats quickly pounced on Comey's firing. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, Ossoff's mentor and former boss, said the timing suggests "an effort to cover up wrongdoing." Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, a candidate for Atlanta mayor, said it "reeks of tyranny, not democracy" and labeled it Watergate 2.0.

And Democratic Party of Georgia head DuBose Porter invoked Trump’s firing of Sally Yates, a former Georgia prosecutor who was briefly the acting U.S. attorney general, in condemning Trump’s decision. He said the American public should insist on a special investigation.

“Our national security is at stake, and these demands must be met immediately,” he said. “We cannot trust Donald Trump to investigate himself. We just cannot trust Donald Trump.”

Handel was among the first prominent Georgia Republicans to comment on Comey’s firing. Most of the state’s GOP leaders had no public comment on the development in the hours after it was announced. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a staunch Trump ally, was the only sitting lawmaker from the state to publicly defend the president’s surprise move.

The first-term Republican said in a statement that Trump “acted decisively and within his authority” and that he stood behind him.

Trump linked his decision to fire Comey to his handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state. But the president's termination letter to Comey invoked the Russia inquiry, mentioning "three separate occasions" where Trump said the FBI chief told him he wasn't under investigation.

The decision led to widespread bipartisan criticism in Washington. Several GOP lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, said they support an independent inquiry into Russia’s ties to Trump’s campaign. And U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, suggested Trump fired Comey as part of a cover-up.

Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.