McBath, Handel rematch will hinge on turnout in suburban Atlanta district

Lucy McBath (left) unseated Karen Handel in 2018, but the two are facing off again in a 2020 rematch in Georgia's 6th Congressional District. AJC file photos.

Lucy McBath was an underdog two years ago, knocking off incumbent U.S. Rep. Karen Handel in a closely watched race. Handel is now back for a rematch, hoping that larger turnout during a presidential election year turns the tide and sends her back to Washington.

In many ways, this new contest mirrors the last one. McBath, a Democrat, still draws heavily on her personal story defined by the shooting death of her teenage son in 2012. She had never run for office before when she decided after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., left 17 dead that her perspective was needed in Congress.

McBath is again emphasizing gun control and health care on the campaign trail, while also touting her successes during her initial term in office.

Handel says her public service background and long-standing ties to the district make her more in tune with voters and better qualified to represent them in Washington. And she is promoting a “law and order” platform that describes recent protests as destructive, violent and anti-police.

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is no longer as deeply red as it once was — former Speaker Newt Gingrich held the seat for 20 years — and Handel knows her success will depend on the enthusiasm of voters devoted to President Donald Trump, as well as Republicans who have become disenchanted with him but want to see the seat in GOP hands.

That’s how she defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff in the June 2017 special election, becoming Georgia’s first Republican congresswoman. At the time the race was the most expensive congressional election ever.

Just 17 months later, with suburban voters growing more skeptical of the president’s leadership, McBath won the district by 1 percentage point, joining the “blue wave” that helped Democrats take control of the U.S. House.

ExploreWhere the U.S. House 6th District candidates stand on the issues

Handel, a former Secretary of State who also served as chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission from 2003 to 2006, believes that recreating the winning coalition that first sent her to Washington is possible again. The outcome will hinge on Trump’s performance at the top of the ticket and whether Democrats or Republicans are more successful in motivating their voters.

“If they can turn that turnout engine back up, if they can rev those engines back up to 2016 levels: then she can win,” Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint said.

Then vs. now

The Democratic Party has taken steps over the past two years to boost McBath in hopes of making it harder to unseat her in November. Party leaders put her in charge of legislation regarding disabled veterans that was signed into law by Trump; the Washington Post described it as the biggest bill passed by a freshman Democrat.

McBath also serves on the Judiciary Committee, a plum assignment that increased her visibility during investigations of the Trump administration and impeachment hearings.

And she has focused on building her presence in the district. McBath has hosted town halls and webinars, met with business owners and elected officials and scheduled virtual storytime for children.

“What’s different now is we have a record to show," she said. "We have actually been able to be that duly invested in the people that sent me to Washington to fight on their behalf.”

Handel says that McBath turned out to be too progressive and too partisan to deserve another term representing the suburban Atlanta district. She accuses her opponent of embracing far-left policies, such as defunding the police, that are out of step with voters.

“I have always been straightforward and honest about who I am and what I believe,” Handel said. “That contrasts with Lucy McBath, who campaigned on one thing and said things on the campaign trail and has served in a completely different way.”

McBath said she never supported reducing funding for law enforcement and accused Handel of using partisan attacks based on fear.

“I do not want to defund police; that has never come out of my mouth,” McBath said.

Both women say they want healthcare reforms and to boost the economy, although they have different strategies for achieving those goals.

McBath wants to expand the Affordable Care Act and lower prescription drug costs; Handel has supported dismantling the Affordable Care Act and says she would replace it with a new system that focuses on boosting funding for community clinics and keeping premiums affordable for families regardless of whether they get their coverage from an employer or on the individual market.

Handel supported the Trump tax cuts and said she also wants to pass laws to implement liability protections for businesses during COVID-19. McBath’s platform focuses on cutting taxes for the middle class and small businesses and increasing the minimum wage.

Handel has also attempted to relitigate attacks from 2018 that McBath doesn’t live in the district and actually spends most of her time in Tennessee, where her husband owns property. Although the law doesn’t require it, McBath owns a home in the district, Marietta, and said that is her primary residence.

ExploreAJC Voter Guide for the Georgia Election

Money to spend

Federal campaign finance records show that McBath had raised more than two times as much money as Handel ahead of their anticipated rematch. She also ended June with three times as much cash on hand: $3.7 million compared to Handel’s $1.2 million.

Both candidates have the backing of their party. Trump endorsed Handel in May before she won the primary against four lesser-known opponents.

McBath is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” candidates, and Handel is a GOP “Young Gun,” a group of candidates with the best chances of winning high-profile races.

The National Republican Campaign Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group controlled by House Republican leaders, have purchased nearly $5 million in ad time in Atlanta, although some of that will be shared to boost the campaign of GOP nominee Rich McCormick in the neighboring 7th District.

On the Democratic side, a political committee controlled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi booked $5.8 million worth of TV time in April for spots that will benefit McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux in the 7th.

Where McBath has carved out a greater edge is via support from an outside political group affiliated by Everytown for Gun Safety. Founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Everytown first gave McBath a national platform after her son’s death, and she later joined its staff.

Everytown spent more than $4.5 million in support of McBath in 2018, which helped offset Handel’s slight fundraising advantage overall. This year, the group has already pledged at least $1.7 million on the rematch and has cut three ads so far: one talking up McBath’s advocacy and two others attacking Handel’s record.

Groups that handicap congressional races generally give the edge to McBath. Inside Politics, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report all list the race as either “lean Democratic" or “tilt Democratic.”

Recent polls have placed McBath ahead slightly, but always within the margin of error. Her power as an incumbent, Trump’s unpopularity and softening support for Republicans in the suburbs means it will be tough for the GOP to flip this seat, Swint said.

“A lot of it is going to depend on how big Trump’s turnout is in Georgia," he said. “I think that’s the best chance Karen Handel has to recapture that seat. Absent that, I think she has a tough challenge.”

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