ROSWELL, Ga. — No campaign push in Georgia’s 6th District is complete without a stop at Rhea’s, an old-fashioned burger joint.
“If you want to win, you gotta have Jimmy’s help,” said Republican candidate Karen Handel, nodding to the owner who was flipping burgers behind the counter at the Roswell location Monday afternoon.
Handel has done this before. She won a 2006 race for Georgia secretary of state. Her subsequent bids for higher office, though, have both been a bust. She lost a race for governor in 2010 and came in third in the 2014 Republican Senate primary.
She’s now the only female candidate out of a field of 18 who’s competitive in the race for the open 6th District seat to replace former Rep. Tom Price, now Health and Human Services secretary. And recent polls give her a good shot of finishing second Tuesday night, in position to advance to the likely runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff in June.
“A double with cheese, that’s the way to go,” Handel told a customer perched at the counter. If one was ever to break a diet, this would be the place to do it, the former secretary of state said. Handel seemed at ease, on familiar ground, meeting friendly faces.
There’s a sign behind the counter at Rhea’s: “If you don’t like my food, there’s the door.” The owner’s political tastes, though, may not be quite so discriminating: his refrigerator door is plastered with campaign bumper stickers from Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Price, and Handel for Governor.
But Handel, whose birthday is Tuesday, feels this race is different from that one, which she lost to a former congressman and current governor, Nathan Deal, and the Senate primary she lost three years ago to former Rep. Jack Kingston and now-Sen. David Perdue.
“A districtwide race is so different from a statewide race. And in this district — it’s not even just name ID — people of this district know me personally, and that’s a very different dynamic from going into a community somewhere else in the state,” Handel said.
Another advantage in this race? Not running against a congressman, Handel said. “That has made everything different on the fundraising front,” she added. She raised $464,000 in roughly the first six weeks of the campaign.
Handel is known as the establishment pick in this race. Her résumé boasts the experience of someone who’s been in politics for decades. She was president and CEO of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, chairwoman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners and then senior vice president for public policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure — a post she resigned after severing the group’s financial ties with Planned Parenthood.
Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss has endorsed her. Ending Spending Action Fund, the super PAC backed by the Ricketts family, is spending on her behalf. And one of her top consultants is the former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Her opponents have almost all gone after her as a “career politician.” An ad from former state Sen. Dan Moody used elephants to symbolize the crowded GOP field. One animal in the herd stood out; it was wearing pearls.
“I love my pearls!” Handel said Monday, wearing a string around her neck. Handel didn’t find the ad offensive and said that most people — her own sister, even — didn’t understand it was a dig at her. “I just thought it was funny,” Handel said.
Running a competitive campaign in what’s still often a man’s world, though, isn’t all funny. Handel found that it’s often the little things the men don’t think about, like the furniture logistics at a debate. She and fellow Republican Amy Kremer, bonded over discomforts that might not have phased the 15 men. (There’s one Democratic woman in the race.)
“If there’s a table, there really needs to be a skirt on the table or else we need to wear slacks. That’s number one,” Handel said. “Number two, the chairs — we had one debate where literally the stools were this high,” she said holding her hand above her waist. “I’m not a particularly tall person, and Amy is a lot shorter.”
“We’re looking at these stools going, ‘Seriously?’ So we said, ‘OK, let’s just have a pact, we’ll both stand ballerina tall for the whole debate.’ Two and a half hours later, our feet were really angry at us,” Handel recalled.
Being fully visible has been part of her campaign strategy this time.
“For this race, it was very important to me to be on camera and say to the voters, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s my background,’” she said. Looking back on her last two statewide races, Handel said, that wasn’t something she did as much in the limited TV spots her campaigns ran.
Back at Rhea’s lunch counter, one of the few people not already wearing a Handel campaign sticker, was devouring the last few bites of his burger. Brandon Wright, age 39, paused long enough to say he was voting for Handel.
“Because I’m conservative,” he said.
And why not one of the other 10 Republicans in the race? Wright said he wasn’t following the race too closely but knew Handel’s name. He’d been a Price voter, too. On the wall across from him hung a framed and signed portrait of the former congressman, smiling.
Whether Handel or someone else secures second place, she sees the GOP coming together for the runoff.
“I certainly understand that holding this seat for Republicans is bigger than any one individual,” she said.
Crossing the parking lot toward her parked car, Handel gestured to a small group of young men waving her campaign signs at passing traffic. “Have the boys eaten?” she asked.
She hadn’t. But satisfied that her small army had had their burgers, Handel climbed into the car to head to the next restaurant stop.