DUNWOODY, Ga. — With President Trump’s approval ratings at historic lows, some Republican congressional candidates fear that embracing him will incur the wrath of moderate voters and doom their campaigns.
Not Karen Handel. The Republican candidate for the House seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is racing to align herself with Trump ahead of a June 20 runoff, hoping his supporters will help her beat back the wave of anti-Trump sentiment that almost delivered an upset victory to Democrat Jon Ossoff in this nationally watched contest.
Handel went out of her way not to mention Trump while trying to rise to the top of a crowded GOP field during the first round of balloting in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. But since receiving the most Republican votes in the April 18 special election, the former secretary of state seems to feel a bit differently.
On Friday, Handel was photographed welcoming Trump on the tarmac in Atlanta when he arrived to speak at the National Rifle Association convention. The president talked up Handel’s campaign from the NRA podium, congratulating her on the “incredible fight” to keep the 6th District red and calling her a champion for gun rights.
Trump later appeared at a high-dollar Handel fundraiser in downtown Atlanta, where he raised $750,000 for the campaign and told Handel she “better win.” A photo of the two greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek made the rounds on social media.
Handel has also started to invoke Trump in soliciting donations. “I’ve been saying it for weeks, and now President Trump agrees: The Democrats are putting everything they have into defeating me,” Handel wrote in an April 23 fundraising email.
In an interview with Fox News on Saturday, she did not acknowledge the possible downsides of embracing the president.
“He’s the president of the United States, and being able to have the president’s support is a good thing,” she said.
Handel added she would welcome Trump if he wanted to campaign with her.
That’s a big difference from the early phases of the contest, when Handel aligned herself with some parts of the president’s agenda but didn’t say much about Trump himself. There were other Republicans in the race who openly embraced Trump, and it didn’t help their candidacies.
If Handel is able to keep the 6th District in Republican hands, it will be a sigh of relief for national Republicans, who have watched Ossoff surge with the help of a national anti-Trump resistance and wondered how the president — unpopular with a majority of Americans but beloved by his base — will play in the 2018 midterm elections when their congressional majority is at stake.
Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto asked Handel on Saturday if she felt that a loss would be “somehow a big damning indictment of all things Trump.”
“Well, obviously I feel the pressure,” Handel said, “but not so much for what it means for the president. . . . It’s the press and the Ossoff folks and the Democrats that want to make this about the president.”
Price’s former seat in suburban Atlanta — which Trump won by 1.5 points — is just the kind of district that Democrats will need to pick off to have any hope of recapturing the House majority next year.
Ossoff rattled Republicans with his strong showing in the special election, falling just short of winning the district outright with about 48 percent of the vote. But Handel was facing 10 GOP rivals, and Republicans hope that without a divided field, they will prevail.
That is no sure thing: The last pre-primary poll conducted by Opinion Savvy suggested that Handel would trail Ossoff by two points in a runoff. At the same time, Trump’s approval rating in the district was 53.7 percent, evidence that Handel’s decision to align herself with him might be a good move.
Handel did not hold any public campaign events over the weekend, and a spokeswoman did not reply to a request to interview her for this article.
While Ossoff doesn’t talk much about the president, his supporters are highly motivated by a desire to signal that they mean business.
“We have two months to build on what we achieved together,” Ossoff told more than 100 volunteers who gathered at a Dunwoody park on Saturday. “We will get out the vote like never before . . . and send a message that will be heard across the country.”
In response to Ossoff’s strong showing in the first round, Republicans have parked millions of new dollars in the district.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is already spending $3.65 million ahead of the runoff, bringing its total spending close to $6 million. Its newest ad brands Ossoff as a “D.C. liberal,” putting his picture next to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who pointedly did not endorse Ossoff until Democrats pressured him to.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with House GOP leaders, announced $3.5 million in new spending — bringing its total to $6.5 million, with $1 million reserved for get-out-the-vote efforts, targeted mail and digital ads.
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, has kept up its own ground campaign, and Ending Spending, a PAC that has supported Handel in multiple elections, has charged back in to Georgia.
Yet despite signs to the contrary, Republicans are less than fully united behind Handel.
Dan Moody, a former Georgia state senator who ran fourth in the primary, has pointedly declined to endorse her. And the Club for Growth, which is on the air in some swing districts to bolster support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, is absent after running negative ads against Handel in the first round. One ad attacked the Republican as a “big-spending career politician we can’t trust with our money” — a message now in sync with that of the Democrats.
In a short interview, Ossoff said he would vote against the Republicans’ latest proposal to revise the ACA, calling the plan dangerous for people with preexisting medical conditions.
“As I see it, it is even worse than the [American Health Care Act],” Ossoff said, citing the GOP’s failed attempt in March to rewrite the Obama-era law.
He declined to say whether he would back House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for reelection, saying he hadn’t given it an “ounce of thought.”
“It’s a hypothetical leadership contest a year and a half or more down the road,” Ossoff said. “I’m focused on winning here in Georgia’s 6th District.”