Karen Handel on why she won Georgia’s 6th District

Karen Handel and her husband Steve take the podium for her victory speech at her election night party on Tuesday, June 20, 2017, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Karen Handel said it wasn’t the ambush of GOP lawmakers on a Virginia baseball field, the specter of Nancy Pelosi or the sway of Donald Trump that helped seal her victory Tuesday in the frenzied contest to represent Georgia’s 6th District.

Instead, she said in a Wednesday interview, it was mounting frustration over one of her opponent’s biggest liabilities: The fact that he didn’t live in the suburban Atlanta district, but south of its borders to be closer to the medical school his fiancée attends.

Public polls indicated 6th District voters said Ossoff’s residence wasn’t a major factor and Handel acknowledged her campaign’s internals showed a similar result. But as the race neared Tuesday’s vote, she said she started getting flooded with questions about where he lived.

“In the last month, Republicans suddenly started paying attention and more independents started breaking my way,” she said. “And the issue of his residency started permeating. It really did matter to people that they would have a congressman that was part of this district.”

She defeated Ossoff on Tuesday by a wider-than-expected margin of 4 points in a race that both parties were desperate to win. Trump personally intervened multiple times to help Handel, and she thanked him in her acceptance speech.

Asked about the nationalization of the race, she downplayed her victory’s influence on the 2018 midterms.

“It’s more Democrats and the press that very much wanted to make this about something other than the voters of the 6th District,” she said. “And yesterday made it very clear it was about the people of the Sixth.”

She added: “Don’t get me wrong – the president was very helpful, and he came in early and gave me a big boost in fundraising. But it was about this: Who does the majority of the people believe was best suited for this seat?”

Her victory in the most expensive U.S. House contest ever gives her only a short-term lease on a seat that’s up for grabs in 2018. Ossoff hasn’t said whether he’ll mount another challenge, but she said her victory proved residents didn’t buy his “duplicitous” message.

“What everyone should take away from this is, as a candidate and in a campaign, you have an obligation out of respect to voters to be authentic about who you are,” she said.

It was a reference to his attempt to appeal to liberals with a message that he’ll defy Trump while also reaching out to a sliver of moderates and independents he needed to win to flip the district.

The race took a tenser turn after last week’s ambush of U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and other GOP lawmakers who were practicing baseball. She talked of a sudden rise in “aggressiveness” in the race that included the threatening letters sent to her and her neighbors.

She also detailed another incident: She woke up one morning last week to find the Handel sign in the lawn across the street from her house removed – and replaced with a dozen Ossoff placards.

“It’s one thing if someone out there is going to target me,” she said. “Steve and I made a conscious decision to have my name on the ballot. But to bring my neighbors and my friends into this crossed a new line.”

As for the prospect of a stiff 2018 challenge from Ossoff or another contender, Handel expressed confidence.

“I’m thinking first and foremost about being the best possible representative I can be for the 6th District. I will do a really good job. I will work extremely hard,” she said. “And I’ll let my record speak for itself, just like I let my record speak for itself now.”

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