DUNWOODY, Ga. — House Speaker Paul Ryan urged a well-heeled crowd in suburban Atlanta Monday afternoon to back congressional candidate Karen Handel as the “one true choice” over her Democratic opponent in the hotly contested runoff election June 20.
“We need someone who’s tested and true,” Ryan said, criticizing Handel’s opponent Jon Ossoff for never holding government office before and for living just outside the district he’s running to represent. “We need Karen Handel.”
“There is so much at stake in this election right now — you have a big responsibility,” Ryan said.
The crowd of several hundred cheered when the speaker said he needed Handel in Congress to help repeal and replace Obamacare and reform the tax code this summer. Both Ryan and Handel stressed her background as the former secretary of state of Georgia and her previous experience leading a local Chamber of Commerce.
“Do we really think a career staffer with a flimsy inflated résumé is going to be able to get anything done?” Handel asked, referring to Ossoff, her 30-year-old opponent who has worked as a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill and is now the CEO of a small business. “No! We need experience, folks. We need someone with the track record that I bring.”
One word was conspicuously absent from both politicians’ remarks: Trump.
The president is not as popular with voters in the affluent district as he is with most Republicans. He won the district by just two points in November. Handel was criticized by her GOP opponents in the first round of the election for remaining somewhat distant from Trump, but the strategy paid off for her. She came in second in the crowded field, far ahead of any other Republican. Ossoff narrowly missed the 50 percent threshold he needed to avoid the June 20 runoff.
Since then Handel has more openly embraced Trump. The president headlined a fundraiser for her and touted her in remarks at an Atlanta conference for the National Rifle Association.
Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District special election to replace Rep. Tom Price, who resigned to become secretary of Health and Human Services, is already shaping up to be the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. Democrats, fired up by antipathy to Trump and anger over the Republican health care plan, and Republicans, eager to defend a seat that has been held by the GOP for decades, have both poured millions into the race.
Handel’s supporters urged attendees to match the enthusiasm of the dozens of protesters who lined up outside the Marriott and protested Monday’s event — shouting about “Trumpcare” — their term for the unpopular Republican replacement for Obamacare that passed the House earlier this month.
Some of the event’s speakers said they agreed with Democrats that the election is a “referendum” on the Republican Party — making their votes more vital.
“I’m going to tell you something: I don’t like seeing all these Jon Ossoff signs out there,” said Ginger Howard, Republican national committeewoman for Georgia. She told attendees to pick up Handel signs and to drive their friends to the polls on June 20.
“This district has been represented by some great, great people: Newt Gingrich, [U.S. Sen.] Johnny Isakson, Tom Price,” said Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston. “I don’t want to wake up on the morning of June 21 and know that y’all have a congressman named Pelosi-off.” (Several speakers compared Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.)
Ryan, who in some polls is less popular than Trump nationally, was warmly received by the room. Dozens crowded around the speaker seeking selfies with him.
“It’s a unique district for a Republican district here in Georgia,” said Seth Weathers, an Atlanta-based Republican political consultant. “You’ve got a bit more of an establishment centrist Republican voting populace, and they typically align well with Paul Ryan.”
In a Gallup poll taken last month, Ryan’s national approval rating slipped to 30 percent from 48 percent last November, which could partially be driven by the unpopularity of his bill replacing Obamacare.
Handel has carefully threaded the needle on healthcare, condemning a loophole that would have exempted members of Congress from the bill but ultimately coming out in support of its passage in the House earlier this month as a “first step,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Republicans stripped the provision exempting themselves before passing it.) Ossoff has sharply criticized the bill.
George and Jeanne Houston, both retired residents of the district, attended the event to support Handel. George Houston praised her integrity and humility, mentioning that he saw her drive up to a recent campaign event in an older car. The couple, who are in their 70s and on Medicare, said they are not sure about the health care plan currently being worked out in the Senate.
“Preexisting conditions [are] something I’d like to see covered,” George Houston said.
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