Karen Handel punched her ticket to Washington on Tuesday after a hard-fought, four-month race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, but she won’t find it easy when she arrives on Capitol Hill.
The Republican representative-elect will soon be sworn in as the most junior member of the U.S. House, a position that comes with little actual power but gobs of visibility.
Handel will be thrown into the House midsession, without the same transition or orientation period that most lawmakers receive at the beginning of each new Congress.
“There will be plenty of backslapping and cheering and, maybe later on in the evening, partying, as well it should be. But then the very next day is getting down to business,” former U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, said of his experience after first arriving in Washington. “The attention is not on you anymore. There are too many things going on.”
And as a freshman, Handel will be on the lowest rungs of House committees and almost certainly excluded from the Capitol’s mythical smoke-filled rooms as big decisions are being made by party leaders. Most junior lawmakers are in the same boat.
“It is overwhelming to look and see how you fit in and frankly how insignificant you are in the big scheme of things,” said former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, a Democrat who represented a Cobb County-based district for 12 years beginning in 1983. “You’ve been talking for the last two or three months about making a big difference when you get to Washington. But the truth is you’re not really going to make any difference or really have any significant role in anything for some time.”
Instead, Handel will be forced to navigate between Republican leaders, who will demand loyalty on politically perilous issues such as health care, taxes and government spending; voters back home; and an often turbulent White House.
Chances are Handel won’t be the deciding vote on legislation in the same way U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., was on health care back in 2010 since the GOP has a 24-seat majority in the House. But her votes will be closely watched anyway, and many won’t be easy. An intraparty showdown over the debt limit is expected in July, and another vote on health care is possible if the Senate can pass its own version of an Obamacare replacement bill. Every legislative move she makes could be used as fodder for opponents in their attack ads.
Handel will need to be seen by her constituents as delivering on her most important campaign pledges such as building a wall on the southern border, repealing the Affordable Care Act and auditing all federal regulations while having very little say as legislation is being crafted and political decisions are being made. Finding a way to sell her accomplishments will be crucial for her re-election — the 6th District GOP primary is less than a year away.
“She’s got some tough votes coming up, there’s no doubt about it,” said former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, who recently retired after 12 years in the U.S. House. “The one thing that you’ve got to learn … is that you’ve given campaign promises and made all these statements, but at the same time you’ve got to understand that people have sent you up there because they trust you to make the right decisions with all the information you have.”
The former Georgia secretary of state proved to be particularly adept Tuesday at threading the needle between President Donald Trump and the 6th’s wealthy and well-educated voters, many of whom are not the most gung-ho about the president. By embracing Trump but ultimately maintaining her independence from the West Wing, Handel was able to draw enough of her base to the polls and appeal to more traditional Republicans wary of the commander in chief to counterbalance Jon Ossoff’s energetic support on the left.
Benefits of office
By claiming the 6th District seat, Handel also secured herself some distinct advantages.
Should she choose to run for re-election in 2018, Handel will immediately be able to take advantage of the perks afforded to congressional incumbents. Those include a built-in fundraising network, a host of industries with business before Congress and wealthy constituents eager to curry favor through campaign donations.
“You’ll have more new friends than you’ll be able to meet and spend time with,” Darden said. “Everybody’s your friend now … and you won’t have any trouble raising any money.”
She’ll also be expected to fundraise heavily for her party and her colleagues.
Handel’s name recognition in the 6th was high even before this spring’s race thanks to three previous runs for statewide office. She can now go into 2018 knowing full well that everyone knows her record and who she is.
“You do have a distinct advantage being the incumbent,” Westmoreland said. “You’re going to have Kuwanis, Rotaries, Exchange groups invite you to come speak. … Then you’re going to go out and you’re going to visit small businesses, tech companies, hospitals, medical facilities, manufacturing facilities. You get to have that one-on-one contact every day.”
Handel is likely to face much stingier challengers next year given her convincing win over Ossoff despite tens of millions of dollars spent by her political opponents. Not only will Democrats think twice about mounting a challenge, but they almost certainly won’t be able to replicate Ossoff’s record-setting $23 million-plus fundraising haul. That’s because the nation’s money and attention will be spread out across 435 U.S. House races, 34 U.S. Senate campaigns, and a host of other state and local contests.
Being a freshman on Capitol Hill typically means crummy committee assignments. Indeed, most all of the plum spots have been taken. But Handel will likely have more prominence than the average freshman lawmaker. Her 6th District victory was so symbolic and high-profile that leaders may choose to promote her quickly to prove a point.
And given that the GOP is constantly criticized for not having enough women in its ranks, Handel may move through the ranks even quicker.
“She’s got a calling card, if you will, and she certainly has a good resume of experience,” said Gingrey, who competed against Handel for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2014.