Republican Karen Handel got national attention when she quit a breast-cancer charity because of its ties to an abortion provider. Democrat Jon Ossoff credits his first-place finish in April’s special election to strong support from women who back his abortion rights stance.
A split on abortion is one of the starkest contrasts between the two candidates in the nationally-watched June 20 runoff to represent suburban Atlanta’s 6th District. And both candidates are banking that their positions will energize their supporters in the final stretch of the race.
The two rivals have traded ads and accusations in the last week over Handel’s short-lived tenure at the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its high-profile aftermath. His campaign hopes to score a major upset in part by wooing moderate and independent female voters who have flocked to Republicans in recent votes.
The sharpening attacks highlight a gender gap in the district. Scattered polls show Handel maintains a solid lead over Ossoff among men. But even as Handel tries to become Georgia’s first Republican woman in Congress, she trails Ossoff among women by nearly double-digit margins.
Attacking Handel’s time at Komen could help him woo women uncomfortable with her opposition to abortion and her Komen background. But it also motivates religious conservatives and other anti-abortion advocates to rally behind her.
Opening a new front
The focus on Komen was inevitable as the campaign became a running battle between national Democrats and Republicans.
Ossoff’s campaign launched the attack on Tuesday, a day after Handel’s visit from House Speaker Paul Ryan, with a 30-second spot that featured OB-GYN physician Mindy Fine of Cobb County staring straight in the camera.
Clad in medical scrubs, Fine described herself as a cancer survivor and said Handel “cut off funding for Planned Parenthood cancer screenings” when she was at the Komen Foundation. Her track record at the charity, Fine said in the ad, was “unforgivable.”
It was the most direct assault yet on her time at the foundation. As vice president for policy, she engineered the foundation’s 2012 decision to halt its partnerships with Planned Parenthood. She resigned soon after amid a furious backlash that alienated many staunch supporters of the charity.
Handel’s book about the episode, called “Planned Bullyhood,” propelled her into the national spotlight and endeared her to social conservatives. But it’s put her in a delicate bind as she tries not to alienate abortion rights supporters in the suburban Atlanta district.
In an interview, Handel said she would push to boost funding for community health centers – there are four in the district and no Planned Parenthood facilities – because they are more accessible to residents.
“They are the front lines of healthcare for poor women, and they offer services everyone needs access to,” she said of the health centers. “I want to see more dollars go there so we really are offering more women access to healthcare.”
Ossoff, who held a roundtable Friday with women’s health advocates, called that position “nonsense.”
“We need both,” he said. “What we don’t need is for career politicians to be imposing their rigid personal views at the expense of public health in Georgia.”
Handel’s campaign unleashed a biting response earlier in the week in the form of a digital ad that featured Anne Lewis, a Republican attorney and close Handel friend who is battling cancer.
Lewis said the criticisms of Handel’s time at the breast-cancer charity “make me sick” and called the Republican a staunch advocate for women’s health.
“She stands up for us and she stands by us when we need her most,” Lewis said. “I know because she’s one of my best friends. Ignore the attacks, let’s elect a woman we can count on.”
A complicated split
Interviews with more than a dozen voters across the district highlighted the extent of the split, as women wrestled with how Trump’s outspoken opposition to abortion and Republican monopoly control of Washington could lead to new restrictions.
Marci McCarthy, the owner of a Brookhaven marketing firm, is an enthusiastic Handel supporter drawn to the Republican because of her support for repealing the Affordable Care Act and slashing regulations. But she’s had to come to terms with Handel’s position on abortion.
“Karen is pro-life. I’m pro-choice,” said McCarthy, adding that the “callous” protests from abortion rights advocates have given her pause. “I found balance in Karen’s position. I’m comfortable with it. I know she’s going to actively represent us. And that’s because there’s more to women’s healthcare than abortions.”
For Gail Ray, a former law librarian who recently moved to Brookhaven, Handel’s “certainly pro-life” view was one of the biggest motivating factors for her support.
“I am certainly for women’s rights,” said Ray. “And to me, that means everyone has the right to be born.”
Ossoff supporters are often quick to invoke his stance on reproductive rights. Rebecca Ferrante of Roswell said one of the main reasons she’s backing Ossoff is because “women must have the choice for what is right for them.” And Shelley Stewart, a former magazine editor in east Cobb, said Handel’s stance lit a fire under her.
“I truly believe that nobody should be making a decision for anyone else on something like pregnancy,” said Stewart. “For politicians of any stripe to intrude is simply wrong.”