Handel, Woodall try to focus campaigns on themselves instead of Trump

Many Democrats want to make this year’s midterm elections a referendum on President Donald Trump, but some of the state’s GOP lawmakers are concentrating on something else entirely: themselves.

Georgia’s two most-targeted Republican members of Congress have sought to neutralize their opponents’ attacks by keeping their re-election campaigns locally focused. U.S. Reps. Rob Woodall and Karen Handel are emphasizing their own D.C. voting records and the positive impact of recent legislation on their suburban Atlanta House districts rather than answering for the president’s most divisive actions.

Handel, who is running for a first full term in a congressional district that only narrowly backed Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, is highlighting her support of bipartisan human trafficking and opioids legislation while only sparingly mentioning the president.

Woodall, in his fourth term, has trumpeted his office’s ground-level constituent service work and the benefits of recent transportation and tax legislation on his Gwinnett and Forsyth county-based district.

The duo has adopted an approach being pushed by House GOP leaders in Washington. Eyeing relatively low approval numbers for the president among suburban women and independents, as well as sustained political energy on the left, they have urged lawmakers in competitive districts to focus their re-election efforts on the booming economy while tuning out the latest scandal of the day in the nation's capital.

‘We’ve been delivering’

Woodall hasn’t faced more than token opposition at the ballot box since 2010, when he first won the seat of his former boss John Linder. And his style is nothing if not low-key: He’s a rare presence on cable news shows, and he’s not known as a big fundraiser or social media user. (He has never tweeted from his campaign account.)

The congressman insists he does not need to significantly alter his unflashy approach to politics, even in the face of spirited opposition from Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University professor who has piqued the interest of Washington Democrats after consistently outperforming him in fundraising. She was recently added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's program for top recruits.

Woodall said he's built relationships with constituents over the years by helping them with personal problems such as navigating the byzantine bureaucracies of the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Veterans Affairs. He's a cheerful salesman of his party's tax cuts and its regulatory and transportation policies, which he says have bolstered consumer confidence, shrunk unemployment levels and helped pay for future toll lanes on Ga. 400.

“Folks want less Washington interference in their life. They want more freedom to do the very best that they can for their communities,” he said in a recent interview. “We don’t just talk about that, we’ve been delivering on that.”

Handel has similarly extolled the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax law in her campaign messaging, in which she’s also turned the spotlight on the local impact of school safety and human trafficking legislation while sharing deeply personal stories from her own tough childhood.

“Just like last summer, this election is not about the rhetoric and the noise and the resistance,” Handel told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month, referring to the blockbuster special election that punched her ticket to Washington. “This election is about the people of the 6th District.”

Handel, who represents portions of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, also hasn't hesitated to repurpose many of the same attack lines she successfully deployed in last year's race against Jon Ossoff. That's included painting Democratic opponent Lucy McBath's views as extreme and tying her to Democratic Party bigwigs such as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.

Challenging Trump

McBath and Bourdeaux have also been eager to discuss policy, but many of their offensives have been filtered through the prism of the president and his agenda. The Democrats have framed their opponents as Trump lackeys who are fearful of standing up to the administration on issues such as Obamacare and middle-class tax cuts.

“There needs to be a Congress and a congressperson in this district who is willing to challenge” Trump, Bourdeaux said as she declared her candidacy last summer.

That message has extended to issues where the incumbents have created some distance from the White House, including on tariffs and the family separations crisis on the southern border.

Handel was one of only a few Georgia Republicans to directly address the immigration crisis, releasing a statement that called for a "humane," bipartisan solution that kept families together. McBath still hit her on the issue months later, cutting a campaign ad that featured footage of Handel presiding over the House floor as a Democratic congressman refused to turn off an audio recording of children crying in a detention center.

Handel “didn’t want the American public to know how horrific these policies she supports are, and I thought, ‘that’s the core of who she really is,’ ” McBath said in the ad.

While Handel has endorsed the president and many of the key pillars of his agenda, she has largely adopted the arm's-length approach of Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

“I have worked hard every single day to do my absolute best for the people of the 6th District,” she said, “and doing that means that sometimes I agree with the president and other times I don’t.”

Woodall, meanwhile, has been a full-throated supporter of the president, even as he's distanced himself from Trump's personal tiffs and scandals.

“President Trump is the president for the next two years, whether folks are excited about it or not,” Woodall said. “But today we have one president who can put his signature on bills, and I tell you there is not one reform measure that the 7th District of Georgia and I can get together on and work through the process and put on his desk that he wouldn’t put his signature on and sign into law.”

Handel and Woodall have a delicate line to walk when it comes to their suburban districts. Trump is relatively unpopular among women and independents but is extremely well-liked among the state's Republicans, according to the AJC's latest poll of likely Georgia voters.

Both Republican lawmakers project confidence about their odds in November. Not only do they enjoy the advantages of incumbency — including superior name identification, fundraising help and districts drawn to protect the GOP — but they also see positive signs in the numbers.

Handel constantly refers to last year’s special election, in which she pulled out a 4-point victory despite the more than $30 million that was spent boosting Ossoff’s campaign. And Woodall points to vote totals from this year’s party primaries.

“Yes, we’re seeing more activity on the left in the 7th District of Georgia than I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said, “and yet when it comes to primary voting, they underperformed Republicans by more than 10,000 votes.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.