Politics

Karen Handel Proves Third Time’s the Charm

Georgia Republican heads to Congress after 2 losing bids for higher office

Karen Handel gives her victory speech to supporters in Atlanta on Tuesday, as her husband Steve Handel looks on. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Republican Karen Handel comes to Congress after a 28-year career with a diverse portfolio of public- and private-sector jobs ranging from overseeing elections as Georgia’s secretary of state to heading the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to serving as the vice president of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which supports breast cancer research.

Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff 52 percent to 48 percent in Tuesday’s 6th District special election runoff to replace former Rep. Tom Price, who vacated the seat to become secretary of Health and Human Services.

Handel, who is the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Georgia, has had her share of political disappointments as well as triumphs.

She ran for governor in 2010 but lost the Republican primary runoff to former Rep. and present Gov. Nathan Deal. In 2014, she tried for the Senate, but finished third in the GOP primary behind business executive David Perdue — the eventual winner — and Rep. Jack Kingston.

Her victory over Ossoff lifted Republicans’ morale. The seat had appeared to be on the brink of slipping away from the GOP as the 30-year-old Ossoff’s candidacy attracted a wave of money and fervor from Democrats across the country. Price had represented the affluent suburban Atlanta district for 11 years before resigning.

[The Last Days of the Georgia 6th Special Election, in Photos]

Handel is a mainstream conservative with a deep knowledge of Georgia politics on the county and state level.

In a WSB-TV debate with Ossoff earlier this month, Handel said she supported President Donald Trump’s executive order that sought to bar the entry into the United States of people from certain Muslim-majority countries.

“It is a temporary limited halt from six countries that are known to harbor terrorists,” she said. “Let me be clear, I do not support a religious litmus test, but I do support vetting individuals coming into this country, particularly from those countries.”

She said the Department of Homeland Security needed time to devise tighter screening procedures “so that we can make sure that individuals coming into this country are not set on terrorizing our citizens.”

[Trump Puts in Late Plug for Handel in Georgia Special House Race]

Handel said she opposed parts of Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request.

“I am troubled by the deep cuts in scientific research and cancer research. And I will have an eye toward ensuring that we are protecting the breast and cervical cancer early detection screening program and funding for community health centers,” she said.

In the WSB-TV debate, Handel said she knew from firsthand experience that the system of insurance exchanges set up by the 2010 health care law is collapsing.

[Where the Cash is Coming From in Georgia, South Carolina House Races]

“I know because my husband and I get our insurance on the exchange,” she said. “The premiums are skyrocketing and we are seeing a complete collapse in choice of plans, as well as [choice of] physicians. Steve and I have seen our monthly premiums go from about $350 a month to nearly $1,200 a month; our deductible from $2,500 to $10,000. So the status quo is unacceptable.”

She said the Congressional Budget Office’s assessment that the House Republicans’ bill to replace the 2010 law would cause 23 million people to lose insurance was based on flawed assumptions. If the House plan were to be enacted, she predicted, people would take advantage of the tax credits in the bill to buy medical insurance.

When the topic of the “living wage” came up in the WSB-TV debate, Handel said, “I do not support a livable wage. What I support is making sure that we can have an economy that is robust, with low taxes and less regulation, so that those small businesses that would be dramatically hurt if you imposed higher minimum wages on them are able to do what they do best: grow jobs and create good-paying jobs for the people in the 6th District.”

Cold shoulder to climate agreement

On environmental matters, Handel has criticized the 2015 Paris climate agreement from which Trump intends to withdraw the United States.

Under that accord, the governments of 195 countries agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

[Opinion: Republicans’ Biggest Problem in Georgia Isn’t the Special Election]

She said in a debate with Ossoff on Atlanta TV station PBA30, “There is no ability within the accord to hold India or China accountable — none whatsoever. And American businesses are being put at a significant competitive disadvantage” under the terms of the Paris accord.

Handel described herself as “tough” and “resilient” in the PBA30 debate. “Some people call me scrappy — and that’s because I am,” she said.

Some of her toughness may be a result of the daunting circumstances of her childhood and youth.

She told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007 and 2010 that she grew up in a “chaotic” household, and that her mother was an alcoholic who sometimes physically abused her and once pulled a gun on her.

“I left home when I was just 17, finished up high school and went to work. I know exactly what it is like to fight against the odds and to overcome adversity,” she said in the PBA30 debate.

Handel never graduated from college. Early in her career, she worked as deputy chief of staff to Marilyn Quayle, Vice President Dan Quayle’s wife, who launched a campaign to make people more aware of breast cancer as a national priority.

She was later deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who is now secretary of Agriculture.

As Georgia’s secretary of state, she presided over the implementation of her state’s photo identification requirement for voters. The law’s opponents called it discriminatory and designed to depress turnout among black and Latino voters. She has pointed out that there was a record turnout among minority voters in Georgia in the 2008 elections even with the photo ID law fully being enforced.

“After four years of litigation by special interest groups, plaintiffs are still unable to find one Georgia voter who was unable to cast a ballot due to our photo ID law,” she said in 2009 after the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed an attempt to overturn a ruling by a federal appeals court that upheld the Georgia law.

Planned Parenthood controversy

One of this campaign’s controversies focused on Ossoff’s assertion that when Handel was the vice president for policy at the Komen Foundation in 2011 and 2012, she “cut off funding for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood.”

She said in the WSB-TV debate that the Komen Foundation’s decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood (a decision which Komen later reversed) was made by the board and her role was only to present options to the board for how the foundation could “disengage” from its connections to the women’s health care organization.

Handel also said in the PBA30 debate that Planned Parenthood’s role as a provider of medical services to women is far less important than having a robust system of community health centers.

“Planned Parenthood is not the front door of women’s health. Not here in the 6th District, not in the state of Georgia and not around the country,” she said.

“So it is imperative for community health centers to be able to pick up the slack. And I support more funding for these community health centers because in the state of Georgia, there are four Planned Parenthood clinics, while there are 60 community health centers,” she said.

Handel added, “Think about a poor woman who lives, let’s just say, in south Georgia, in Long County. The closest Planned Parenthood clinic for that woman is going to be in Macon or Savannah. She doesn’t maybe even have a car. … So we need to build up the infrastructure, as well as the resources and the talent within our community health centers because they are the front door for low-income women for the full range of health care.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.