Republican Karen Handel has wholeheartedly embraced President Donald Trump ahead of a June matchup against a surging Democrat, securing financial help for her costly campaign but also embarking on potentially treacherous political ground in a district that was skeptical of him.
But after landing a spot in the June 20 runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff, Handel has gladly accepted Trump’s help in what Republicans see as a must-win special election to represent a suburban Atlanta district that has for decades been in GOP hands.
Trump will host a glitzy fundraiser for Handel on Friday after a speech at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Atlanta, guaranteeing a hefty cash infusion for a candidate who has long struggled to keep up with the fundraising hauls of her opponents.
It’s the latest in a series of public interventions from a White House said to be nervously watching the race for the 6th District, which stretches from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County.
Ahead of last week’s election, Trump sent a barrage of tweets and recorded a robo-call encouraging Republicans to vote against Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional aide who has become a face of the Democratic resistance to the president. And he and Handel shared what the candidate called a “very gracious” phone call after Republicans narrowly blocked Ossoff from an outright win.
“We know what’s at stake here is bigger than any one person,” she said of the president’s support. “In the next two months, we need every single Republican we can get — including the president — to be coalesced and united.”
Trump’s growing role in the campaign, however, risks invigorating Democrats and turning off some Republicans in a district he struggled to win. Trump carried the establishment-friendly district by less than 2 points in November, underperforming past Republican presidential candidates who notched landslide margins there. And the GOP candidates in last week’s election who were most closely aligned with the president fared poorly.
Scores of Democrats reacted to the news of Trump’s fundraiser for Handel late Tuesday with vows to pump more money into Ossoff’s campaign.
In an interview Wednesday, Ossoff said he was not worried about Handel’s appearance with Trump but also said he’s not certain it will rev up his supporters.
“Time will tell. I’m not particularly concerned about the comings and goings of figures from Washington,” he said. “I’m focused on the economic message I’ll be taking to the voters of the 6th District.”
‘Make it better’
A former Georgia secretary of state, Handel did not play a prominent role in Trump’s presidential campaign in the state and largely kept talk of him at arm’s length since joining the race for Congress in February.
At campaign stops across the suburban district, Republican Bob Gray took shots at Handel with boasts that he was the only leading candidate to enthusiastically back the president. And Bruce LeVell, who was chairman of Trump’s national diversity coalition, criticized Handel and other candidates for not mentioning the president’s name at events.
When pressed by voters or reporters, Handel often said she backed many of the president’s proposals but would not be afraid to defy him should he run afoul of the district’s priorities.
“If nothing else, I’m fairly independent about things,” she said at one campaign stop. “My job first and foremost is to represent the best interests of the 6th. There are going to be many times obviously when I’m supportive of the president’s initiatives, and when they aren’t, my job is to work to try to make it better.”
But the June 20 must-win runoff for Republicans has fast become a circle-the-wagons moment. Bitter rivals from Handel’s past races — including a 2010 bid for governor and a 2014 run for the U.S. Senate — have quickly endorsed her. And a raft of Washington-based super PACs have pledged their support.
That could help neutralize one of her most glaring weaknesses. She’s long struggled to keep pace with rivals in the race for campaign cash, and her last fundraising haul was about 20 times smaller than Ossoff’s unprecedented $8.3 million take.
New donors have buoyed her campaign with more than $1 million since last week’s vote, and Trump’s Atlanta fundraiser will add another tide of cash. Tickets start at $2,700 a person or $5,400 a couple. A hosting sponsorship will cost $25,000.
She’ll have reinforcements from outside groups ready to pour money and resources into what could wind up being the most expensive House race ever. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed Handel on Tuesday, and the Congressional Leadership Fund — a super PAC with ties to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan — said Wednesday that it will pump an additional $3.5 million into the contest.
How that will all play on the ground remains to be seen. Internal Republican polls show Trump with solid approval ratings among conservatives, though they lag behind other GOP leaders who could also back Handel’s campaign.
“If President Trump wants to help her, that’s wonderful,” said Donna Rowe, a Cobb real estate agent and Republican activist. “Yes, the district went for Marco Rubio (in Georgia’s Republican presidential primary). But we’ve all put on our big boy pants and we’re ready to march forward.”
Many Ossoff supporters are more than happy to see this race as a chance to deliver an early blow to Trump.
Among them is Steven Kelman, a 61-year-old business developer, who said his support for Ossoff “is a vote against what’s going on in this country.”
“I think it would be great for this district to go blue,” Kelman said.
Staff writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this article.