A pair of Cabinet secretaries with deep ties to Georgia’s 6th District rallied Republicans Saturday behind Karen Handel in a get-out-the-vote event laced with biting attacks on Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Former Rep. Tom Price, now Donald Trump’s health secretary, and ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, held court in a steamy airport hangar at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport that attracted more than 200 people.
This was Price’s first public campaign rally in the nationally-watched race for the suburban district he once represented, which is seen as a test for the GOP agenda. He hardly mentioned the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which he is in charge of implementing, highlighting instead a broader conservative message.
“We want lower taxes. We all want a government that respects you. You all want patient-centered healthcare,” said Price. “You all want national security to be an absolute priority for the federal government. If you want any one of those items, then who you want is Karen Handel for the 6th District.”
And Perdue, who hired Handel as a deputy when he was governor, urged conservatives not to be fooled by a Democrat who sports a “few Republican buzz words.” He led voters in a chant of “no turning back.”
“This is a harbinger of national politics. The world is looking, the nation is looking – and all the money has flowed in here,” Perdue said. “Don’t be fooled by someone who doesn’t have a record. Let me tell you something, he’s a puppeteer and the strings are being pulled by Democrats and the Nancy Pelosi.”
He said he wanted to focus his appeal on “turned-off voters" he worried would stay home on Tuesday.
“Some Republicans may be turned off by our president. I don’t think you are. I’m not,” he said, mentioning Trump’s roll-out of tougher Cuba policies in Miami on Friday. “The president keeps his promises.”
Handel stuck to familiar themes, casting Ossoff as an outsider whose “values are some 3,000 miles away in San Francisco.” He grew up in the district but now lives outside its borders near Emory University, where his fiancé attends medical school, and has pledged to move back.
“On June 20 let’s make sure to do our jobs and get everyone out to vote,” she said. “On June 20, let’s send someone to Washington who can really Handel it.”
It was the latest and perhaps last in a string of high-profile visits that have brought Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence to town to back Handel in the Tuesday runoff against Ossoff.
This one held more local flair for voters of the suburban district. Price won the seat in 2004 and notched commanding victories every two years until his Cabinet appointment. Perdue was elected in 2002 the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
With polls showing a tight race, Handel is seeking every advantage she can to consolidate Republican support and thwart Ossoff. Both parties have poured enormous resources into the Tuesday vote, which is by far the most expensive U.S. House contest in the nation’s history.
As Handel brings in big names to the conservative-leaning district, Ossoff has not countered with his own bevy of high-profile supporters.
Wary of giving Republicans new reason to cast him as a liberal, he has only campaigned publicly with a handful of Democratic officials. Among his stops on Saturday are two events with Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who helped spark his interest in politics.
The Saturday event was organized by John Watson, the newly-minted Georgia GOP chair, who has made boosting Handel one of his first priorities. A former aide to Perdue, Watson won this month’s vote to lead the cash-strapped party on a pledge to shore up its finances and make it more relevant.
Cabinet officials are permitted by the Hatch Act, a 1939 law, to engage in electoral politics as long as they’re not acting in an official capacity. Both Cabinet members stressed they were there on unofficial business.
Handel and Price have a long friendship, and he supported her 2010 bid for governor. But Price stayed largely quiet about the race to replace him, and his wife Betty – a Roswell physician and state legislator – briefly considered running for the seat. Neither publicly backed any candidate in the first round of voting, and neither had donated to Handel in the latest fundraising reports.
Perdue has a sometimes-bumpy history with Handel, who he made his deputy chief of staff after his 2002 election. He backed his first-cousin David Perdue over Handel in the 2014 race for an open U.S. Senate seat. And many of his allies supported another Republican in the first round of this year's contest.
The rally’s location holds symbolism for Perdue and the veterans of his 2002 campaign: The airport complex is where he housed his first campaign office in that bid for governor, the beginning of a GOP revival in Georgia that he invoked during Saturday’s event.
“These folks coming in,” Perdue said wistfully, surveying a crowd that included many of his former aides and campaign allies, “reminded me why we’re Republican today.”