ATLANTA — Republican Karen Handel accused Democrat Jon Ossoff of being a Nancy Pelosi clone in a televised prime-time debate that saw her go on the attack as if she has ground to make up in the highly competitive special election campaign to fill a vacant Georgia congressional seat.
Polling shows a tight race ahead of the June 20 election, and Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state, brought the heat. At one point, she asked her Democratic opponent: "Exactly, who are you going to vote for in this election," a reference to the fact that Ossoff lives outside the Sixth Congressional District and can not vote for himself.
Handel called Ossoff a fraud who is trying to convince the voters in this conservative-leaning, suburban Atlanta district that he's a pragmatic centrist. To make her point, she repeatedly invoked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who remains highly toxic among Republican voters and a sharp motivator to turn out and vote, say GOP insiders active in the race.
"You might live just five minutes outside the district, but your values are 3,000 miles away in San Francisco," Handel said, alleging that Ossoff decided to skip a proposed CNN debate on June 13 because he was worried that "the fake Jon Ossoff was going to collide with the real Jon Ossoff, who is a Nancy Pelosi liberal."
Ossoff criticized Handel for supporting the Republican healthcare bill to partially repeal Obamacare, arguing that it would "gut" protections for pre-existing medical conditions and asked his GOP opponent to explain her tenure at the Susan G. Komen Foundation and moves the charity made while she was there to stop providing funding to Planned Parenthood.
But the brunt of his attacks on Handel were on her long career in public service — or attempts to serve, referring to her over and over as a "career politician" and once as a "career politician who's run five different times for six different offices." Ossoff was monotone and very matter-of-fact in his delivery, suggesting he has confidence in his political position two weeks before Election Day.
"I think we need a fresh perspective," Ossoff said, pledging to work with Republicans on wasteful government spending, which he said was the No. 1 problem that needs to be addressed in Washington. "I will be a fresh independent voice for this community."
Ossoff led Handel by two percentage points in the latest RealClearPolitics polling averages, a statistical tie, a margin in line with the private polling being viewed by Democratic and Republican insiders. The Democrat departed the debate without taking questions from reporters; so did Handel. The event was hosted and broadcast by WSB-TV, Atlanta's ABC affiliate.
Ironically, President Trump received scant mention during the one-hour faceoff, despite the facts that the race is viewed nationally as a proxy on his leadership and that the liberal grassroots have flooded Ossoff's campaign with millions of dollars to register their opposition to the administration. Ossoff never explicitly attempted to tie Handel to Trump, a move that his campaign aide said after the debate was by design.
Trump only won the Sixth District by 1.5 points in November, even as Republican Tom Price, now his Health and Human Services secretary, was re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote in a seat that has been in GOP hands for almost 40 years. Theoretically, there could be some political profit in attempting to saddle Handel with Trump, who remains mired in controversy and has historically low approval ratings for a president only on the job four months.
"Her embrace of him stands for itself," an Ossoff campaign aide told the Washington Examiner after the debate, when asked why the Democrat didn't raise the specter of Handel's rubber-stamping Trump should she advance to Congress. Trump has raised money for Handel and she has voiced support for his healthcare bill, and Tuesday evening, his travel ban — though, she stressed, no religious litmus tests.
In fact, Handel said she had plenty of disagreements with Trump when asked by the debate moderator to detail where she differs with him on many of his proposed cuts to the federal budget and his use of Twitter. That criticism comes as the president has stepped up his use of the social medium this week after backing off somewhat during his nine-day foreign trip.
"I think I would really like to recommend some Twitter policy changes," she said. "Sometimes you should just put down the computer, the phone, and walk away."
The race for Georgia's vacant Sixth Congressional District has national implications, as Democrats seek to knock Trump down a peg and boost their prospects for a House takeover in 2018. Republicans are looking for a shot of confidence in their political standing amid the president's missteps and to accelerate their slow-moving agenda on Capitol Hill.
By the time the race is over, the two campaigns and affiliated outside groups could spend a combined $50 million, a record for a House race.
The debate was light on local issues, with the moderators focusing on national matters relating to national security and domestic policies like healthcare, taxes and campaign finance reform.
"I'm dismayed by the weak trajectory of our foreign policy," Ossoff said, referencing strained U.S. relations with NATO.
Former President Barack Obama, Handel countered, "had a feckless, leading-from-behind foreign policy. Trump came in with a clear strategy."