A rematch is on the horizon in Georgia’s suburban 6th Congressional District, where gun control activist Lucy McBath (D) defeated Republican Rep. Karen Handel in one of the most shocking results in the 2018 midterm elections. Just over a year earlier, Handel had won a nationally-watched special election for the seat, which was the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. Now she is seeking to reclaim her old seat after losing re-election.
Handel’s career in Georgia politics goes all the way back to 2003. That year, she was elected to chair the county commission in Fulton County, which includes the state capital of Atlanta. She entered statewide politics in 2006, running for Georgia Secretary of State. She finished first in the Republican primary but failed to cross the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. She easily won the runoff election 57%-43%. In the general election, she faced a Democratic state lawmaker named Gail Buckner. Handel prevailed in the general election with 54% to Buckner’s 42%, becoming the first Republican to be elected Secretary of State in Georgia history. As the state’s chief elections official, Handel began purging the state’s voter rolls and was accused by groups such as the ACLU of voter suppression.
In early 2009, Handel announced that she would run in the 2010 Republican primary for Governor of Georgia, and resigned as Secretary of State later in the year to focus on her campaign. She finished first in the Republican primary with 34% of the vote, well below the 50% threshold. The second place finisher was Congressman Nathan Deal, who represented rural North Georgia for many years, at one point serving as a Democrat. The runoff campaign was extremely contentious. According to the 2012 edition of the Almanac of American Politics, Deal accused Handel of being “insufficiently conservative” on social issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Handel, meanwhile, seized on an ongoing ethics probe into Deal and called him a “corrupt relic of Washington.” In a year when the Tea Party was on the rise, both candidates earned endorsements from conservative lightning rods. Deal was endorsed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Handel was endorsed by former Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, as well as Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. The final result was extremely close: Deal was leading on the night of the runoff with 50.2% to Handel’s 49.8%, a margin of about 2,500 votes. Handel opted not to seek a recount and conceded the race to Deal the next morning. He went on to defeat former Gov. Roy Barnes (D) in the general election.
Following her defeat in the runoff, Handel become vice president of public policy at Susan G. Komen, a nonprofit organization for breast cancer survivors. She helped the organization sever ties with Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States. She then wrote a memoir explaining her decision to sever ties with the group, called “Planned Bullyhood.” In 2014, she decided to run for the open U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Saxby Chambliss, who had announced that he would not run for a third term. However, she failed to win a spot in the Republican runoff, finishing in third place with about 22% of the vote.
After his victory in the 2016 presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump announced that he was nomination longtime Georgia Congressman Tom Price to be the Secretary of Health & Human Services. Price had represented Georgia’s suburban 6th District since 2005 and had been mentioned as a possible candidate for statewide office for quite some time. His nomination and eventual confirmation led to a special election in the 6th District. After observing some recent trends in GA-06, Democrats tried targeting the district. It voted for Trump by just 1.5% in 2016 after voting for Romney by 23% just four years earlier.
The top Democratic candidate in the race was an investigative journalist named Jon Ossoff. He had served as a legislative aid to John Lewis and called the late civil rights hero his mentor. Handel entered to the race for the open seat but was not the only Republican in the race. Other Republicans in the race included Johns Creek city councilman, former State Sen. Judson Hill and former State Sen. Dan Moody.
Special elections in Georgia are required to be held as jungle primaries. All candidates run on the same ballot and the first place finisher must earn more than 50% of the vote. If not, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff election. Ossoff narrowly fell short of the 50% threshold, earning 48% of the vote. Handel was the top Republican finisher with about 20% of the vote. The runoff election was both grueling and expensive. Ossoff stunned national Democrats with his record-breaking fundraising abilities. By the end of the campaign, he had raised over $30 million. Handel criticized Ossoff’s lack of experience and Republicans said that he would be a rubber stamp for Pelosi’s liberal agenda. Ossoff also faced questions about residency. Though he grew up in the district, he was criticized for not currently residing there. He admitted that he lived just outside the district with his wife while she was trying to finish medical school. In the end, Handel prevailed in the runoff election, taking 51.8% to Ossoff’s 48.2%. The race broke fundraising records and became the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history.
After falling short here, Democrats were not expected to seriously target Handel in the 2018 midterm elections. Ossoff had announced that he would not seek a rematch against Handel. Four Democrats ran in the Democratic primary. The top three candidates were local TV anchor Bobby Kaple, businessman Kevin Abel and gun control activist Lucy McBath. McBath finished first in the primary but did not earn more than 50% of the vote. She and Abel advanced to a runoff election, where McBath emerged victorious.
McBath, the mother of slain teenager Jordan Davis, made gun control a key issue in her campaign. She was endorsed by Bloomberg’s gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, where she once worked as a spokeswoman. She also stressed the importance of healthcare, having survived two bouts of breast cancer.
Neither party really invested heavily in this race until late in the campaign. As late as September, the chairman of the NRCC was very bullish on Handel’s chances of winning re-election. However, some late developments pointed to signs of a close race. Handel began running ads questioning McBath’s residency. The NRCC began spending on Handel’s behalf as well. Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety group spent millions supporting McBath in the final weeks of the campaign. The race was razor-thin on the night of the election, with McBath having a narrow lead once all of the votes were counted. Handel decided not to opt for a recount and conceded to McBath a few days after the election.
Handel announced in the Spring of 2019 that she would be seeking a rematch with McBath. But she wasn’t the only Republican interested in running. State Sen. Brandon Beach, veteran Nicole Rodden and construction company owner Marjorie Taylor Greene all announced that they would run for the seat. But each of their campaigns were short-lived: Beach and Rodden both ended up dropping out of the race, and Greene announced that she would run for the open seat in the solidly red 14th District — two districts over. This left Handel as the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and she easily won the primary with 77% of the vote. The attacks between Handel and McBath began almost immediately after the primary. Handel released an ad saying that McBath stands with those who want to defund the police. McBath responded with an ad saying “I don’t need a lecture from [Handel] about criminals. I lost my son to one.”
McBath heads into the final weeks of the campaign as a favorite for re-election. Both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the race as “Leans Democratic.” GA-06 is the type of district where President Trump has room to fall. He won it by just 1.5% in 2016 and it voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 race for Governor of Georgia. I would be surprised if he wins it in November. If he does, he’s likely winning Georgia by a comfortable margin statewide.