Handel, Ossoff fine-tune closing pitches in hypernationalized race

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff are treading carefully in pursuit of votes in the final days of the 6th Congressional District campaign. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff are treading carefully in pursuit of votes in the final days of the 6th Congressional District campaign. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

He said nothing about Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign appearance with Karen Handel last week. He bit his tongue over President Donald Trump’s tongue-lashing robocall sent to thousands of 6th Congressional District voters over the past week. And he held back after former FBI Director Jim Comey’s explosive testimony.

For a candidate who once put his opposition to Trump at the center of his campaign, Jon Ossoff has been walking a much finer line in the final days before Tuesday’s runoff. It’s all about navigating the middle ground between enticing Democrats and capturing the slice of Republicans he’ll need to win the seat.

Handel has tried a similar balancing act in an appeal to conservatives in the Republican-leaning district, trying to cast herself as an experienced conservative who is also eager to shake up the status quo. On the heels of Pence’s visit, she maintained that she’s accepting of all the big-name help she can get but said she’s no “extension” of the White House.

Both are trying to tread delicate ground in a hypernationalized race that’s the most expensive of its kind, and both of their final pitches reflect the caustic nature of the contest.

In his closing TV ad, Ossoff heads to a literal kitchen table and speaks about working with both parties to cut billions in “wasteful spending” in Washington and bringing more jobs to the suburbs. His name materializes at the end of the ad; his party affiliation does not.

And Handel, in one of her final pushes, has made her case as much about attacking Ossoff as it is about her “proven record.” She calls herself a tried-and-true conservative with nearly as many years of experience in the district as her 30-year-old opponent has been alive. Ossoff, she flatly puts it, “doesn’t share our values.”

‘Stand up to Trump’

For Ossoff, the closing line is the latest in careful maneuvering that extends far beyond Trump.

Take Handel's assertion in last week's debate that "I do not support a livable wage." The video of her remarks went viral, eliciting outrage from his supporters. But he held back on exploiting the remark, leaving it to Democratic surrogates to assail her. Handel, meanwhile, has stood by the comment, saying it highlights a policy rift over the minimum wage.

And even as he publicly sticks to centrist messaging, such as bringing tech jobs to the suburban Atlanta district, a campaign powered by an unprecedented fundraising haul has continued to target left-leaning voters with anti-Trump appeals.

A recent Ossoff digital ad aimed at black voters emphasizes that strategy, with a canvasser reminding viewers, “Did I mention he’ll stand up to Donald Trump?”

Pressed on the multiple-messaging, Ossoff was unapologetic: “I’m going to build a coalition that’s based on metro Atlanta’s local economic development, to accountability in Washington and to the need for fresh leadership at a time when Washington is consumed with gridlock.”

It’s a reflection of the reality of his challenge. Although Trump struggled mightily in the district, narrowly carrying it in November, its demographics still favor conservatives. Even if Ossoff wrings every Democratic vote out of the territory, he still needs to capture a chunk of Republicans and independents turned off by Trump or Handel to win the seat.

It could be fertile ground for Ossoff. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of 6th District voters released last week shows about one-quarter of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump. That includes about one in 10 residents who said they voted for Trump in 2016.

It’s why Ossoff tries to cast his campaign in post-partisan terms, saying that “both parties in Washington” are complicit in out-of-control spending. Voters, he said, want “less partisanship and less bickering and less gridlock.”

That’s the message that wooed Angela Hansberger, a 46-year-old writer from north DeKalb County. She said Handel’s “continual alignment” with Trump helped win her over. But so did Ossoff’s talk of more local issues such as metro Atlanta’s gridlock and the need for higher minimum wages in the city.

“I want to hear what people are going to do and not what the other party is not doing,” Hansberger said, praising Ossoff for “speaking about what he is going to do for the people of the district.”

‘Align with their values’

Handel has also tried to seize on local issues popular with conservatives in the district, promising to support regulatory rollbacks and vowing to oppose any tax increases.

But she’s just as likely to cast her message as a stand against Ossoff, whom she calls a puppet for out-of-state interests and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House.

Handel’s strategy shows signs of gaining traction. The AJC poll shows that nearly 60 percent of voters in the district have dim views of Pelosi, including nearly all the Republicans who were surveyed.

Charles R. Neal, a 65-year-old east Cobb County retiree, said he leans toward the Libertarian Party and said the GOP was “soft on defense and spending.” And he finds the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that Handel supports to be “way too invasive.”

But he’s still casting his ballot for Handel, saying bluntly: “I am more or less voting against Jon Ossoff.”

Marlene Weingart, a 62-year-old Dunwoody homemaker, had a similar take. She questioned whether Handel was a “true conservative,” but she added that she would never support the Democrat.

“I do not like Ossoff and I do not like his affiliation with Nancy Pelosi,” she said, mentioning that preserving GOP control of Congress was a major part of her decision. “We need numbers in the House so we can put through some legislation.”

In the final days of the campaign, Handel has taken aim at some of the reddest parts of the district while planning a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who had represented the district in Congress since 2004 before joining Trump’s Cabinet this year. Her closing pitch emphasizes her roots.

“The people of this district want someone they know, that they can trust,” she said, “who really does align with their values and can represent them and not be a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi or, frankly, be an extension of the White House or the leadership.”

Staff writer Anastaciah Ondieki contributed to this article.

6th DISTRICT RUNOFF

Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff face each other in a runoff Tuesday to fill the congressional seat Tom Price vacated to become secretary of health and human services.

To see more articles about the campaign — including candidate profiles, stories focusing on the issues of the race and finance reports — go to http://www.myAJC.com/politics.

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