It might not have seemed that way, but the scene at a stuffed Roswell restaurant on the eve of last week’s runoff was a quietly remarkable one.
It was the night before the 6th Congressional District vote, and Gov. Nathan Deal was campaigning for a former opponent his staff once described as a spout of “unhinged blather.” Sprinkled in the crowd of hundreds of energetic Karen Handel supporters were other onetime rivals and critics who once fought to derail her political career.
The spectacle of GOP figures rallying around Handel was at once expected and extraordinary. She was at the center of the most expensive U.S. House contest ever, a must-win for Republicans if ever there was one — what Handel often called a true “all hands on deck” moment.
Yet it crystallized how she was embraced — wholeheartedly by some, begrudgingly by others — by the same establishment figures who long tried to shut her out of office. After all, this was the same politician who launched her 2010 gubernatorial run with a pledge to end a Gold Dome culture that she criticized in unsparing terms: “sex, lies and lobbyists.”
Now the 55-year-old will arrive in Congress — perhaps the country’s pre-eminent boy’s club — and take the mantle as Georgia’s first-ever Republican congresswoman. She’ll do it thanks, in no small part, to the establishment that once rejected her.
Asked whether she felt a measure of vindication watching all her erstwhile opponents flock to her side, rivals who fled from her during her failed 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, Handel refrained from gloating.
“I’m extraordinarily humbled that individuals that haven’t been my supporters in the past are now coming together,” she said a day after her victory. “Those experiences help you. I’m humbled and grateful that everyone came together for this. It wasn’t necessarily for me. All of us got together to make sure the seat was held.”
There is no discounting the unbridled animosity in past races between Handel and her mostly male rivals.
There was Deal, whom she once painted as a central cog in a corrupt system, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who once knocked the “high school graduate in this race” during the 2014 Senate bid. Both proclaimed ahead of the 6th District runoff that Handel was the perfect fit for public office. “Nobody knows the district better than her,” Perdue told Fox News before the vote.
And there was Bob Gray, whose no-holds-barred campaign for the 6th once falsely claimed she had dropped out of the race, joining the parade of GOP officials backing her shortly after his April defeat. “We need her. President Trump needs her. America needs her!” Gray recently tweeted.
The Handel depicted in attack ads in the 6th District race was a “career politician” who would say anything to win. Airwaves were filled with claims of overspending in public office and questions about her use of an SUV. Some of the sharpest of those barbs were deployed by Jon Ossoff, her Democratic opponent, but they were first honed over the years by her GOP rivals.
The Handel that Georgians saw on the stump this year had a very different message, too, than the ones she delivered in her campaigns of yesteryear. Gone, for the most part, were screeds against a hopelessly corrupted status quo. This time she was running as a traditional conservative — and the establishment was her friend.
She was richly rewarded for it. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and his top deputy raised money for her. And Ryan’s favorite super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, spent more than $7 million to thwart Ossoff’s campaign. A legion of 135 CLF staffers who knocked on 300,000 doors ahead of the runoff served as the backbone of the GOP get-out-the-vote effort.
Her closest friends say she earned every bit of Tuesday’s win. Donna Rowe met Handel in the early 2000s at a north Fulton County GOP event and the two became fast friends. Rowe played a pivotal role in the campaign, appearing in a CLF ad for Handel while helping rally Cobb County GOP groups behind her.
“When my husband died, Karen and Steve came to the visitation the whole time. She wasn’t in office. She wasn’t running for office,” Rowe said. “Some of those good ol’ boys, they only see us when they’re running. But not Karen.”
She added: “She won it whether ‘they’ wanted her to win it or not. There may have been some people edgy about her, but they realized all in all we do it together or we don’t do it at all.”
Handel is used to long odds. She had a rough-and-tumble childhood marred by an alcoholic mother who once pulled a gun on her. She never graduated from college — she took courses toward an accounting degree — but managed to land a string of big-deal jobs with corporate giants and the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
In her first stint in public office, as an outspoken Republican chairwoman of the Democratic-controlled Fulton County Commission, her colleagues pointedly called her “Commissioner Handel” rather than the traditional honorific of “madam chair” to stress that she was but one vote among seven.
In her second, as Georgia’s first Republican secretary of state, she hung an eye-catching portrait of a frontier women during the Revolutionary War fending off cowering British sympathizers. It was an unsubtle reminder that she is a sharp-elbowed fighter to her core.
Those past triumphs and defeats, particularly the bruising 2010 and 2014 losses, helped shape the Handel who earned a wider-than-expected victory over Ossoff last week. Past contests hurled her into the national debate. But she said this high-stakes race, and the all-consuming media glare, made it the “craziest” of her life.
“That’s one of the advantages of having the scrutiny I’ve had,” Handel said. “The experience of being in the media spotlight before and knowing that when you have a really, really tough defeat it’s not so much the loss, it’s pulling yourself back together and rising to live another day.”
She was tested in new ways, too. She withstood a fractured first round of voting that featured 10 other Republicans to square off against Ossoff, a political newcomer and fundraising dynamo who had inspired Donald Trump critics across the nation to open their wallets.
It took a personal toll: Threatening letters with a suspicious white substance, later deemed to be nonhazardous, were sent to her home and several neighbors’ homes days before the vote. A day later, Handel said, pranksters stole her campaign sign from the lawn across the street from her Roswell home — and replaced it with about a dozen Ossoff signs.
Hours before the vote, Handel seemed put off by a question about whether she was shaken by the threats. She wasn’t, she said. She was infuriated.
“I will not be intimidated by anyone when it comes to what my beliefs are,” she said. “And I take great offense to the fact that whoever did this targeted my neighbors and friends. That just speaks to the unhealthiness out there in the discourse in this country.”
When Handel is sworn in as the newest member of the U.S. House — the ceremony is scheduled for Monday — she will join an exclusive club. Only 1 in 5 members of the U.S. House are women, and the GOP counts on 21 — soon to be 22 — female House members. She’ll be the first female lawmaker from Georgia since Democrat Cynthia McKinney, who was ousted in a 2006 primary.
Ask other women on Capitol Hill about the boy’s club atmosphere and they’re quick to confirm the challenges ahead for Handel.
“Definitely true,” said U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, one of two women in the Alabama congressional delegation.
“You have to prove yourself,” said U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, one of two women in Tennessee’s contingent.
But there are distinct advantages. Sewell said she often leans on veteran female lawmakers to help navigate the Byzantine system, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus: “What I’m seeing increasingly is there’s a good ol’ girl network, too, that can be helpful.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who once held the 6th District seat, said he isn’t particularly worried about Handel fitting in.
“She’ll do fine,” Isakson predicted. “Women are born with a gene men don’t have. They can handle men easily.”
Meshing with the G-10
Handel will soon also be inducted into a lesser-known club. The 10 Georgia Republicans in the House are a particularly tightknit group. They debate bills, plot out strategy and lunch together every Thursday. Some have served together for years, dating to their days in the statehouse.
They call themselves the “G-10.”
“We cut up, we have a good time and then come up here,” said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “We’re just a group of men, and now women, that are coming through a similar crucible. We represent the same amount of folks, and we go through the same things.”
A few were in the state Legislature when Handel took aim at the “cycle of abuse and corruption” at the statehouse — and said her male opponents couldn’t be trusted to “clean up the mess.” One of them was U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, who also was briefly a gubernatorial candidate until instead running for a Tifton-based congressional seat.
He and others insisted that any past differences would be treated as water under the bridge, and he pledged to help her set up her office, hire staff and get on her feet quickly.
“We’ve got enough problems that what we do tomorrow is more important than anything that happened years ago,” Scott said.
Many will be on hand when she’s sworn in to take in a moment of history.
“It’s going to be so incredible,” said Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist and Handel ally. “To me, it’s kind of like bursting through that glass ceiling.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.