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.”
A tumultuous childhood
She talks unflinchingly of her background on the campaign trail.
She fled a troubled home in Upper Marlboro, Md. when she was 17 after her alcoholic mother pulled a gun on her, and she graduated high school while working two part-time gigs. Her sister’s medical problems – she was born without an esophagus – helped shape her views.
“Today, thanks to a lot of prayers and what I believe is a miracle and some truly talented surgeons, my sister is great,” said Handel. “But as you can imagine, any family going through something like that experiences tremendous financial strain and an incredible emotional strain.”
Of her late mother, who died nearly two decades ago, she said a life full of stress “quite literally broke her.”
Handel planned to get an accounting degree, and took courses at Prince George’s Community College and the University of Maryland, but never finished. After a gig with Hallmark, she landed a job working for Marilyn Quayle, wife of then-Vice President Dan Quayle. She wound up as the second lady’s deputy chief of staff, managed her office staff and helped her launch a breast cancer initiative.
Her husband Steve’s job as a tech executive brought the couple to Atlanta in 1993, and she was later hired as CEO of the North Fulton Chamber and then worked for Gov. Sonny Perdue. A 2002 bid for Fulton County Commission went south, but a year later she won a special election to chair the county’s cantankerous board.
It was a political trial by fire.
Her fellow commissioners in the Democratic-controlled body at first wouldn’t call her “madam chair,” instead opting for “commissioner Handel” to stress she was one vote among seven. She fought with her fellow lawmakers, Atlanta’s mayor and local GOP officials. And she managed to close a $100 million budget crisis, building coalitions across the aisle to do so.
“We do have to change,” she would say of her first months on the job. “If I wasn’t willing to do that, I shouldn’t have put my name on the ballot.”
By then a fast-rising star in a resurgent Georgia GOP, Handel ran for secretary of state in 2006. It was a race strangely dominated by social debates, and she won her party’s nomination in part by railing against gay adoptions and abortion rights – issues the office, which oversees elections, has little or no influence over.
After she easily defeated a Democratic opponent, becoming the first Republican to win the seat, she made a head-turning statement in her Capitol office: She hung a giant portrait of a frontier woman holding off a handful of cowering British sympathizers who invaded her Georgia home during the Revolutionary War.
She told visitors the painting was not meant to be symbolic of her own scrappy political rise. And eyes would roll.
That’s where she served for just shy of three years before launching a late 2009 bid for governor, winding up in a 2010 runoff against Nathan Deal, a former congressman. Handel cast herself as a crusading reformer fighting an elitist ethically-challenged system. Deal’s camp described one of her more pointed attacks as “uninformed blather.”
Within a year of her narrow defeat – she lost by about 2,500 votes – Handel was in Washington as vice president of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It was a short-lived job.
After she played a central role in the group’s 2012 decision to cut ties with Planned Parenthood, the healthcare organization that also provides abortions, there was a national outcry. Handel resigned when the breast-cancer charity reversed its decision, later writing a book about the episode called “Planned Bullyhood.”
Planned Parenthood’s supporters and executives remain furious with Handel, and they marshaled their supporters to knock on tens of thousands of doors for Ossoff ahead of the vote.
“Women marched to the polls to elect a candidate who will make protecting women’s programs and access to healthcare a top priority,” said Deirdre Schifeling, director of the group’s political action fund.
Handel plunged back into politics a year later with a bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Her third-place finish in the 2014 primary was marred by the same problems that derailed her before: She struggled to raise cash and never got much support from the political establishment.
Of loyalty and ‘Eeyore’
Her enemies and adversaries – and she’s picked up plenty along the way – call her a “career politician” willing to do whatever it takes to win. Many of the attacks Ossoff now wields against Handel were honed by GOP rivals, who were often unsparing in their criticism.
The Club for Growth, a conservative PAC, called her a “perennial candidate with a penchant for losing” in a widely-distributed memo earlier this year. Deal’s office depicted her criticism of him in a 2012 “sadder than the end of ‘Old Yeller.’”
Her tough-love persona can be endearing to some, infuriating to others.
Clint Murphy, a former aide and longtime Handel friend, recalls getting a tongue-lashing from her for not knowing how to use a GPS. The nickname Handel gave him because of his doomsday approach to the campaign: Eeyore, the downtrodden “Winnie the Pooh” character.
“She’s not afraid to bust your chops,” said Murphy, who talks of her admiringly. “She knows when she is right and she knows how to get it done. That gives her a rare level of confidence. She just knows.”
To Murphy, though, that “gestalt” forged by her tumultuous upbringing is exactly what makes her an appealing candidate. Some voters, he said, are drawn to her “what you see is what you get” candor.
That can be off-putting to others. Ashley Starnes, a Dunwoody dentist, said she seemed “condescending and really disrespectful” to Ossoff during last week’s WSB-TV debate. She took particular issue with a moment when Handel told Ossoff not to “lecture” her and called him fake.
“I don’t have to like you for you to be competent at your job,” she said, “but it sure helps get things accomplished.”
Her supporters brush off concerns about likability.
“Sixth District voters will choose Handel because her policies reflect the interests of the district and she has the experience to get the job done,” said Lane Flynn, a north DeKalb Republican who considers Handel a friend, “not because of how likable they find her.”
Underdog to favorite to underdog?
After U.S. Rep. Tom Price was tapped as Donald Trump’s health secretary, Handel spread word she would jump in the contest to represent the district.
She found herself in a rare position: She was the early odds-on favorite to win the 6th District seat he held since 2004. The demographics and history favored the GOP, and she was by far the biggest name of the 11 Republicans in the race.
Ossoff’s emergence coupled with Trump’s troubles scrambled the race. The 30-year-old former congressional aide has raised unprecedented amounts of cash and kept Handel on the defensive for parts of the race. He’s now neck-and-neck with her in the polls.
Handel, who once kept Trump at arm’s length, has responded by moving toward the president. The two campaigned together in Atlanta and she backs his major decisions – though at last week’s debate she criticized him for his knack for using Twitter to stoke controversy.
And many of her erstwhile GOP rivals have come to her side, sending endorsements on social media and saying nice things about her to the cameras. Deal, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, former Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray – all once bitter adversaries, now endorsers of her campaign.
If Handel has a chip on her shoulder, she only hints at it.
At last week’s GOP convention in Augusta, Handel surveyed a crowd of party insiders who crammed into an Augusta hotel ballroom. These grassroots gatherings are the seed of many campaigns, and many campaign rumors, and Handel had something to say.
“People have said I’m resilient. I’m tough. Some of you might have even called me stubborn and some other names I haven’t heard,” she told the crowd. “But I embrace that. I am a fighter. I have never been afraid to stand up and challenge the status quo.”