She was welcomed with an introduction most of the audience had never heard before: U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, victor of the most expensive U.S. House contest in history, wanted to be a pro football player as a kid.
It’s true, she told a few dozen tea party activists and conservatives piled into a Marietta hall. Instead, Handel settled for another contact sport. And now she’s gearing up for another bruising campaign season after a hard-fought June 20 win over Democrat Jon Ossoff to represent suburban Atlanta’s 6th Congressional District.
She recently sent out her first fundraising plea warning that Democrats were hungry for “revenge,” and she’s toured GOP groups with a message that mixes gratitude for their support with a reminder of a fight to come to hold the district.
“The Republican Party came together and was united in June, and we’re going to have to repeat that in 2018,” Handel said. “Because what I know is that, across the various groups, if any one part came out of the coalition, I don’t know if we’d be successful.”
She could very well face a rematch against Ossoff. He’s expected to announce his decision within weeks, and he’s dropped hints about a comeback. And if he runs, he’ll have a built-in organization, sky-high name recognition and a donor list so voluminous it makes national candidates jealous.
But even if he decides against it, Democrats will be on the hunt for another high-profile contender. And if the neighboring 7th Congressional District is any indication, there will be no shortage of interest: About a dozen candidates are expected to join the race to challenge U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in a Gwinnett County-based GOP stronghold.
A fast transition
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, has had little time to ease into Congress after her victory. She was sworn into office days after her victory ended a nationally watched campaign that cost more than $60 million while drawing President Donald Trump and other members of the GOP’s upper crust to Georgia.
She’s spent the early days hiring aides and trying to learn the ropes in Washington. She quipped about hitting a “milestone” last week — a full day without getting lost on Capitol Hill. With a laugh, she talks about turning down offers from roaming lawmakers to sign onto bills she hasn’t read yet.
Just the other day, she co-sponsored one of her first pieces of legislation: a measure that would toughen penalties on sex traffickers and devote $130 million to prevention efforts.
Handel was elected too late to vote on the House version of the ill-fated Obamacare repeal but said she would have wholeheartedly supported it. And she’s quickly gotten the hang of dinging a favorite foil of House members, telling crowds complaining about gridlock to look toward the Senate.
As for Trump, whom she increasingly embraced as the election neared despite his struggles in the district, she stuck to non-offensive language. She said she is clearly “interested in a new Twitter policy” before criticizing media for what she said was biased coverage of his presidency.
Behind the scenes, her campaign machinery is revving back up. She reported about $430,000 left in her account, according to recent filings, and she said in her fundraising plea that she’s instructed her campaign “to begin preparing for whatever comes our way in 2018.”
Her campaign is well aware that the object hurtling in her direction could be Ossoff, who transformed what was expected to be a quiet battle for a long-safe Republican seat into a proxy fight over Trump, the health care overhaul and the partisan struggle for suburbia.
He wound up raising nearly $30 million — about five times more than Handel — and narrowly missed an outright win in April’s first round of the voting. Polls showed a neck-and-neck race through June, and a tide of outside spending helped Republicans close the funding gap. With the help of a surge in turnout, Handel notched a 4-point victory.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker, has met recently with party leaders who have counseled him to run again, seek statewide office — the lieutenant governor’s race remains wide open — or hold tight and wait for another election cycle.
In the meantime, he’s stayed busy after a post-election vacation with his fiancée. He introduced Al Gore’s latest documentary at a Brookhaven event on Wednesday.
And at a recent Georgia Voice bash, where he was named “best politician” by the newspaper’s LGBT audience, he had sharp words for Trump — a decidedly different tone from his campaign against Handel when he was more reluctant to aggressively attack the president.
“In one of history’s great democracies, a patriotic country that was born of resistance to foreign interference, a weak and dishonest man has cheapened the presidency and compromised the United States,” Ossoff said. “And he has compromised the United States in the eyes of our allies and adversaries alike.”
‘It is what it is’
Other Democrats are ruminating about a run, including Richard Keatley, a military veteran and college educator who captured less than 300 votes in April’s special election for the seat. Higher-profile candidates, meanwhile, are waiting on Ossoff’s decision before announcing their own. And no GOP challenger to Handel has yet surfaced.
Republicans are supremely confident in Handel’s chances. After all, if she was able to win in the full glare of the national spotlight despite unprecedented Democratic spending, she could only strengthen her standing in 2018 as an incumbent.
“I seriously doubt that she will be seriously challenged in the Republican primary next year,” said J.D. Van Brink, the Georgia Tea Party chairman who co-hosted Handel’s event this week. “And based on the history of the 6th District, I think she will easily win the general election.”
His best guess: a 60-40 Handel runaway victory in 2018.
There’s reason to believe it could be much tighter. Democrats aim to turn the midterms into a referendum on the president, and they’ll try to tether her to Trump — who only narrowly carried the suburban stretch. Lighter turnout — the voting rate in June’s runoff far surpassed the 2014 midterm — could also upend the race.
“Ossoff was hurt by the fact that there just wasn’t enough Democrats in the district,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist. “But if turnout levels fall and Republicans are demoralized, Ossoff or whoever the Democratic nominee is could keep the coalition together.”
Those, however, were the same conditions Democrats were counting on to win the past election. Instead, surging Democratic turnout wasn’t enough to overcome heavy GOP voting in a district where Republicans far outnumber Democrats.
Another wild card: The election is more than a year away, which might as well be a glacial age in electoral politics. Trump’s deteriorating poll numbers could play to a Democrat’s advantage, but the president could also rebound by November 2018 and buoy Republicans across the map.
Handel lets it be known that she’s ready for another grueling election against a well-funded opponent — but that she’s not agonizing over the prospect. She talks matter-of-factly about rekindling her campaign, as if talking about the inevitability of a sunrise: “It is what it is. We have to do what we have to do.”