House Speaker Paul Ryan stuck to the basics during a swing through metro Atlanta on Monday to campaign for Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th District race, imploring voters to stick with the “tested and true” candidate in the nationally watched contest.
But his visit underscored how Handel is increasingly relying on Republican heavyweights in the race to represent Atlanta’s northern suburbs in Congress, even as recent developments have driven new wedges between her and Democrat Jon Ossoff. The two will meet in the June 20 runoff.
Handel hopes to fire up the Republican base by embracing the House GOP’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, and her side-by-side appearance with Ryan — the proposal’s chief architect — further highlighted her support for the plan.
Ossoff has called the measure a dangerous partisan attempt to roll back insurance protections. And some Democrats hope to capitalize on Donald Trump’s sudden decision to fire FBI Director James Comey amid an investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
That abrupt termination left Republicans — Handel and Ryan included — scrambling to account for Trump’s decision. While Ossoff has echoed other Democrats in calling for an independent investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 vote, Handel has said that his firing was “probably overdue.”
It’s yet another divide among candidates who split over just about every major policy, from abortion rights to immigration reform. The race is not only an early test of Trump’s popularity — a notion he cemented by his direct involvement in the race through tweets and a fundraising visit — but also a test case for 2018 midterm elections.
Nationally, Democrats and Republicans are closely watching how debate over the still-evolving health measure factors into the contest. And Ossoff’s supporters hope that Comey’s firing — and the Trump administration’s bungled explanation of it — could further invigorate his voters.
The health plan is far from a done deal, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have warned procedural hurdles could force negotiators to toss out vast portions of the legislation.
But Ossoff has quickly seized on provisions in the plan that would limit Obamacare’s subsidies and give leeway to states to allow insurers to charge more for people with pre-existing conditions.
“I’m speaking my mind on an issue that affects thousands of families here in Georgia,” he said in a recent interview. “Folks who are elected have an obligation to put politics aside and do what’s right for the community here. Throwing folks off their health insurance, denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions — it’s just wrong.”
Republicans have put the repeal of Obamacare at the center of the legislative agenda, and Ryan said Handel’s election will help ensure Congress will “repeal and replace Obamacare.” Handel, who made no mention of the health-care proposal during her short speech, has said previously she supports the bill and that lawmakers should not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The debate over health care has polarized both camps.
Rebecca Reeves, a Sandy Springs retiree, said Handel’s support for the House GOP health care bill helped drive her to the protest barricades. A cancer survivor, she worries her quality of health care would suffer under the House bill that Ryan championed and Handel supports.
“I hope it comes back to haunt her,” said Reeves. “We need to join the rest of the civilized world with universal health care. These politicians, they don’t get that they work for us.”
Several of Handel’s supporters at the rally on Monday said they were just as energized by her promise to vote for legislation that would roll back the Affordable Care Act.
“Obamacare is failing, and I can tell you it’s really hindered our ability to provide health care,” said Marci McCarthy, the Brookhaven owner of a marketing firm. “The new House plan still needs refining. It needs work. But I have faith that when the Senate gets their hands on it and finesses it, we are going to have great health care.”
Consolidating the base
Trump’s name was hardly mentioned at the event, and talk of tax overhauls and other GOP initiatives only got glancing mentions at an event dominated by red-meat attacks on Ossoff and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“We’re not going to let Nancy Pelosi and her hand-picked candidate steal this seat from the Republicans,” Handel said.
Ryan has been one of Handel’s most outspoken supporters since she notched a spot in the June 20 runoff, and his visit is the latest sign that she is consolidating GOP support after brutal infighting in the first round of the vote.
Republicans have held the seat for decades, and national GOP groups have poured in millions of dollars to thwart Ossoff from pulling off an upset victory that could embarrass the party.
A 30-year-old former congressional aide, Ossoff has countered with unprecedented fundraising success — overwhelmingly from out-of-state donors — that have turned this into the costliest U.S. House race on record.
Ryan’s visit highlights the advantages Handel enjoys in a suburban Atlanta district that has long been in GOP hands. She’s already leaned on both Trump and Ryan for fundraising visits, and more high-profile politicians are likely to follow.
Ossoff, however, can’t turn to most of the Democratic fundraising heavyweights over fear of alienating moderates and Republicans he needs to persuade to vote for him if he has any chance of winning the conservative-leaning district.
Ryan played up that notion, invoking the history of the suburban Atlanta district. Though it has changed shape over the years, the seat has been in GOP hands since Jimmy Carter’s presidency and was once represented by Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Tom Price.
“These are very, very hard shoes to fill,” Ryan said. “I can tell you this, but you already know it – Karen Handel is the only person capable of filling these big shoes.”