If you have followed Karen Handel's career, to hear her called an establishment Republican jars the senses.
The candidate who elbowed her way into a Sixth District congressional runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff last night has been on the outside looking in since a pretty nasty 2010 GOP runoff for governor against Nathan Deal.
Her watch party at a Roswell hotel was telling: It was a small affair with a cash bar, filled with supporters from the lower tiers of Republican activism: Two Cobb County commissioners, and one from Fulton County – Liz Hausmann, who endorsed former state senator Dan Moody in the contest, was there to make amends. Roswell Mayor Jere Wood. A state lawmaker or two. Sue Everhart, the former state GOP chairman.
Handel had been endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, but he wasn't there.
In political parlance, there was little or no money in the room. This was noted by John Garst, who has served as a Handel political consultant throughout her career. Said Garst:
“This first round was predictable. Most everybody knew Ossoff was going to be at or close to 50 (percent). Most everybody knew Karen would lead the Republican field.
“Now we have the question: Will the Republican power crowd that isn’t here right now, and they’re not going to be here tonight – there’s going to be some talking done in the backroom. Do they get behind her or do they not?”
But there’s another question. In her 10-minute victory speech, Handel never once mentioned Donald Trump, whose presidency has turned a reliably Republican district into a near-miss.
When Democrats ruled Georgia, many turned their backs on their party’s national representatives. They would go fishing during convention season, and arrange calendar conflicts to avoid being placed in the same camera frame. Even Gov. Sonny Perdue, certainly no Democrat, once fled an airport to avoid shaking hands with Vice President Dick Cheney.
On April 28, President Donald Trump will be in Atlanta to address members of the National Rifle Association. There is the question of whether Trump intends to make time for Handel, of course.
But the more important question is whether Handel will want to be seen with Trump. She put to rest any questions about whether she would be running from the president in an interview Wednesday.
"He is the president of the United States of America. Of course I'll be seen with him," she said, adding: "The biggest opportunity for us in the race is having Republicans across the party being united and locking arms in the race."
Portions of three counties make up the Sixth District. Democrat Jon Ossoff won a majority in DeKalb, and pluralities in both Cobb and Fulton. The unofficial numbers:
The 192,084 votes cast is almost certainly a record for a special election congressional race in Georgia. The last one was in 2010, to fill the Ninth District seat vacated by soon-to-be Gov. Nathan Deal. The first round of voting drew roughly 52,000. The runoff attracted 40,000 or so.
Not that it helped Judson Hill of Marietta, who finished fourth in the Sixth District race last night, but Cobb County – which also had a state senate race to fill Hill’s vacated seat – won the turnout sweepstakes last night. The figures, from the secretary of state’s office:
-- Cobb County, 47.46 percent;
-- DeKalb County, 44.59 percent;
-- Fulton County, 40.54 percent;
Total: 43.47 percent
Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the No. 5 Republican in the U.S. House, trumpeted Handel's performance on Tuesday.
"The Democrats threw everything they possibly could at this race at a very competitive seat that became the moniker for national politics," said Collins. "They spent more than $8 million and gained about 1 percent. It showed the 6th District is a conserviatve district. And in the runoff, Karen Handel can win."
"Bring it on!" said Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday night, as he acknowledged that the next two months of his life would revolve around a June 20 runoff for the Sixth District seat.
"Bring it on," shouted Republican Karen Handel last night, in anticipation over a coming debate on women's health care.
It was a case of both appropriation and revival. In the wee hours, Clint Murphy, a supporter of Handel's race for governor in 2010, noted that "Bring it on" was her campaign slogan in that race.
A few lines contained within the morning note from Columbia Journalism Review, documenting the national circus that was last night’s Sixth District race:
On the media side, BuzzFeed livestreamed coverage of the election results, drawing half a million viewers. Major newspapers had multiple journalists on the ground in Georgia, and The New York Times hosted the sort of reporters’ live chat that is usually reserved for national elections or cultural events like the Oscars. And the whole show is likely to return in June.
As we said above, next week should give us clues about the relationship Karen Handel will cultivate with Donald Trump during this two-month runoff.
Likewise, tomorrow night’s big fundraiser for Georgia Democrats, to be held at the Hyatt in downtown Atlanta, will say much about the support that Jon Ossoff is likely to get.
Speaking will be Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. So will Ossoff, who will use the speech as a new campaign kickoff.