Listen to Karen Handel speak and you’re apt to hear a few words: Tough. Fighter. Battle.
A Republican who spent decades in the political trenches, she often casts her life in the hardened terms fit for a combat zone. And in the June 20 runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff, she faces a monumental electoral test. And if she loses, possibly her last one in politics.
A long-familiar name for Georgia voters, Handel’s story arc is no mystery to many: There was her time as Secretary of State in the late 2000s, her crushing loss to Nathan Deal in a razor-thin 2010 runoff and her failed 2014 bid for an open U.S. Senate seat after a controversial stint at a breast-cancer charity.
But it’s this candidacy that’s propelled the 55-year-old to an even wider audience - even though she’s running for a lesser seat. After three consecutive statewide campaigns, Handel is the Republican hope to hold the 6th District, a suburban Atlanta stretch that the GOP considers a must win.
Both national parties have poured unprecedented amounts of cash into the race, which is seen as a test for Donald Trump’s presidency and the GOP agenda.
In this contest, she’s not the swashbuckling reformer or anti-establishment contender she was in past elections who railed against a corrupt political system. She’s running more as a traditional conservative voice, quick to say she’s independent-minded even as she ties her campaign to President Trump.
At a time when many Republicans are running away from their experience in public office, Handel is trumpeting her background in government – even the two statewide losses in her last campaigns – as an asset.
“Our life experiences, the good and the bad, the mundane and the very difficult, are what build character. They build our core,” said Handel. “I have been facing walls my entire life. And virtually every time I’ve found a way to get over that wall or around it.”
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