Political Insider

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Behind Karen Handel’s rift with Donald Trump over tariffs


Karen Handel has blinked.

For the first time in a congressional career that is coming up on its first anniversary, she has parted ways — ever so politely — with President Donald Trump.

If you are a Handel fan who would like to see the Republican re-elected to the Sixth District seat in November, this is a good thing. Yes, Handel won an expensive, nationalized contest last June against Democrat Jon Ossoff. With support from a newly installed Trump.

But there remains the fact that Trump carried the Sixth by a single percentage point in 2016, 48 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent. Given that north metro Atlanta remains tenuous in its support for the administration, this 2-year-old statistic alone requires Handel, now an incumbent herself, to put some air between herself and the president.

So the fact that Handel blinked isn’t a surprise. But her reason for blinking — opposition to tariffs Trump has imposed on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and Europe — might be.

Two Democrats are vying to face Handel in November. Lucy McBath of Marietta has served as a national spokeswoman for an anti-gun violence group. In 2012, her 17-year-old son was murdered in Florida by a man who objected to the loud music coming from the youth’s car.

The threat that McBath poses for Handel can be measured in part by the unease among white suburban women, many of them Republicans and independents, disturbed by the current spate of school shootings, and by the influence the National Rifle Association holds over Congress.

McBath’s Democratic rival is Kevin Abel, a South African-born immigrant. Abel and his wife are co-founders of an Alpharetta technology consulting firm. His strength lies in his ties with the local business community.

As far as who Handel would like to see come out of the July 24 Democratic primary runoff, the Roswell Republican has expressed no preference. But she may have tipped her hand with the press release her office released Thursday responding to tariffs that Trump had imposed earlier that day.

“With lower taxes and relief from onerous regulations, the U.S. economy has been reignited,” Handel said. (Washington Republicans have learned to lead their criticism of the president with a compliment.) “The administration’s decision to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum from Mexico, Canada, and Europe threatens to dampen this recent progress…

“Today’s actions — and the inevitable retaliatory moves by these countries — will hurt working Americans, negatively affect our economy, and do not further the goal of fostering more equitable trade,” she said. “American families and manufacturers should not be collateral damage in a global trading war.”

Two things were missing from Handel’s statement. One was an acknowledgement that, on this same day, a German business weekly had identified another shoe that might soon drop.

WirtschaftsWoche reported that during French President Emmanuel Macron’s April visit to the White House, Trump had spoken of his intentions to impose a tariff on imported luxury cars that wouldn’t be lifted until the last Mercedes-Benz had disappeared from New York City’s Fifth Avenue.

The anecdote was unsourced, but only a week earlier, on May 23, the U.S. Department of Commerce had announced it had launched an investigation to determine whether auto imports threaten national security.

In other words, the fight over tariffs could come to a head very quickly in Georgia.

The second thing missing from that Karen Handel press release? The home address of Kevin Abel, one of those two Democratic rivals. “I live down the street from the new Mercedes headquarters, which is bringing thousands of jobs to the Sixth District,” Abel said. “There’s a reason members of the president’s own party are speaking out against this decision.”

This is not to dismiss Lucy McBath’s chances in a July primary runoff or, if successful there, in November. A serious gap is indeed building between suburban and rural Republicans over social issues — including gun violence and gay marriage.

But if there is a ground zero for the socially libertarian, economically conservative Republican in Georgia, it’s the Sixth District.

We mentioned the new North American headquarters for Mercedes-Benz that formally opened in Sandy Springs this March — the result of $27 million in state and local incentives. The company currently employs about 600.

The Southern office of the German American Chamber of Commerce has no reason to know which German businesses are in which Georgia congressional districts, but a spokesman said roughly 25 are in the Sandy Springs, Roswell and Alpharetta area — with Mercedes-Benz being the largest.

Then there’s Porsche Cars North America, which in 2015 opened a 27-acre, $100 million complex adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. That, of course is in US. Rep. John Lewis’ Fifth District.

But before it moved, Porsche's headquarters was in Sandy Springs. And it’s very likely that much of its workforce still lives there. And votes there.

In other words, if you’re a Sixth District congresswoman who needs to demonstrate her independence from a president with an 80 percent statewide approval rating among grass-roots Republicans, economic policy is the hill you die on — not social conservatism. Because the former is shaping up to be a potential November vulnerability.

It should be noted that Handel’s language on the issue of tariffs tracks closely with that used by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson — though perhaps it wasn’t quite as forceful.

Nor is the disagreement just about one GOP member of Congress’ survival in November. A genuine rift appears to be developing between the Trump faction within the Republican Party and more traditional economic conservatives.

The Koch brothers, through their collection of conservative political groups, have launched what’s being called a multimillion-dollar campaign against Trump’s tariffs.

One of the primary voices in the effort will be that of Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. Who was at one time a partner with Ralph Reed in the Georgia government affairs firm of Century Strategies. Reed is now a committed Trump ally.


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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.