Handel launches comeback bid with vow to fight against ‘Pelosi agenda’

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, on the night of her defeat in the Nov. 6 election. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, on the night of her defeat in the Nov. 6 election. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Former Congresswoman Karen Handel announced plans on Monday to seek her old suburban Atlanta U.S. House seat, setting up what will undoubtedly be a contentious primary and general election battle for a district she narrowly lost in November.

The Roswell Republican kicked off her bid for Georgia' 6th Congressional District with a 90-second video featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and a trio of liberal freshman firebrands: U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.

"We need someone who works for our best interests, not just for the Pelosi agenda or to gain national celebrity," said Handel, who spent 18 months in Washington after defeating Jon Ossoff in a nationally-watched 2017 special election.

Pelosi was one of Handel's favorite foils during that pricey battle to replace former health Secretary Tom Price, but she eventually shifted to a more policy-focused message as she campaigned for re-election in 2018.

Handel's new spot hit on many of the same issues she ran on last year: the strength of the economy under GOP leadership, supporting the military and fighting the opioid crisis and human trafficking. She also raised alarms about some of the policy overhauls being championed by newly-emboldened progressives, including 'Medicare for all' and Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, as well as pressure from the left to impeach President Donald Trump.

“They’re trying to turn America into a socialist country,” Handel wrote in an email to supporters.

The ad did not name Congresswoman Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, the gun control advocate and first-time candidate whose surprise victory last fall highlighted the troubles the GOP faces in the once-ruby red Atlanta suburbs. But it made a veiled reference to her and Ossoff when it mentioned leaders who "actually lived in our communities."

Handel relentlessly hit Ossoff for living outside the 6th District during the 2017 campaign and also raised questions about McBath's brief move to Tennessee while receiving a local tax deduction.

Unlike last year, Handel will face primary competition.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, announced his bid for the 6th District seat in January. The former chief executive of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce is well-connected as the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, but his status as a proponent for MARTA and legalized casino gambling could create problems for some Republican primary voters.

First elected to the Senate in 2013, Beach took conservative stances on some of the state’s most heated debates. He’s voted to pass a campus gun measure, restrict abortion and support a version of the “religious liberty” measure.

Handel also once led the North Fulton Chamber before entering into politics. She served as secretary of state before running unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and U.S. Senate four years later. She's kept a low profile since conceding to McBath but has stayed in close contact with donors and core supporters.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly blasted Handel for past votes in favor of the GOP tax overhaul and big-ticket spending bills, as well as some of her expenses while she was Georgia's top elections official.

“Georgians deserve better than Handel, a career politician who has backed bills that would raise health care costs and taxes for middle-class families while living large on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Mike Gwin, a spokesman for the House Democratic campaign group.

Even before Handel entered the race, the 6th District contest was being heavily targeted by Republicans as a 2020 pickup opportunity. The National Republican Congressional Committee has closely followed McBath's every move in Washington and tied her to controversial comments made by Omar, Tlaib and other House colleagues.

McBath, for her part, has sought to avoid making waves on Capitol Hill while pushing ahead on her top legislative priorities. She was a lead sponsor on a pair of bills expanding federal background checks for firearms sales and has voted with the Democratic Party on every major issue that's come before the House, including Trump's border emergencyPelosi's speakership and ending the 35-day government shutdown.

McBath's campaign quickly jumped on Monday's news, issuing a fundraising appeal that blasted Handel for being a "true career politician."

Stretching from east Cobb to north DeKalb, the 6th District was once represented by Newt Gingrich and Johnny Isakson and considered to be safely in Republican hands until the rise of Trump. GOP incumbents typically carried the district by upwards of 20 percentage points, but Ossoff’s 4-point loss months after the 2016 general election prompted a renewed Democratic interest in the seat last year.

McBath capitalized on her powerful personal story - she lost her only son to gun violence and survived two bouts with breast cancer - to raise money from across the country. She was also aided by surging turnout from last year's history-making gubernatorial race and significant outside assistance from gun control groups that embraced her message.

The Democrat is expected to tie her GOP opponent to Trump’s more divisive policies, including the Obamacare replacement plan he endorsed and his immigration and trade proposals.

Read more: How McBath won in Georgia's 6th District

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.