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Ga. Republican, At Center Of Planned Parenthood Controversy, Back In Spotlight

Karen Handel, in a congressional seat runoff, pictured when she was a vice president at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. She landed in controversy there about Planned Parenthood funding.
Bill Clark
CQ-Roll Call Inc.
Karen Handel, in a congressional seat runoff, pictured when she was a vice president at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation. She landed in controversy there about Planned Parenthood funding.

If you thought it was odd that a special election in the Atlanta suburbs got so much national attention, you haven't seen anything yet.

So far, much of the focus has been on Democrat Jon Ossoff — and with good reason. The Democratic base rallied around him and made the election a referendum on President Trump.

In some ways, it worked. Ossoff came within 3,648 votes of winning the right-leaning congressional seat outright in Georgia's 6th Congressional District. He needed 50 percent to do that; he got just over 48 percent. That outperformed where he was polling, and was better than the Democrat who ran for Congress in 2016 against then-incumbent Tom Price, who vacated the seat to become Trump's Health and Human Services secretary.

"There is no doubt this is already a victory for the ages," Ossoff claimed Tuesday night.

But it is more like just missing a home run in baseball — "It is high! It is deep! It is ... foul."

It still makes Ossoff dangerous, but now his opponent gets a turn at bat.

That opponent, who emerged from a field of 11 Republicans, is Karen Handel, a familiar name in Georgia politics who, not that long ago, was at the center of national controversy.

Who is Karen Handel?

There's something of a three-strikes rule in politics — lose three big races in a row, and you're out as a top candidate.

Handel is now on her third try. The former Georgia secretary of state lost twice in subsequent bids for statewide higher office — once for governor and once for the U.S. Senate.

Now, because of the conservative bent of the 6th Congressional District, she is likely to be the favorite against Ossoff on June 20.

But she is about to get a lot more national attention, and her role in an attempt to strip funding to Planned Parenthood from the Susan G. Komen foundation may just keep the liberal base fired up.

Handel is conservative, especially when it comes to abortion rights. After her failed gubernatorial bid in 2010, she joined the Komen foundation. As a vice president, she pushed to eliminate its funding of Planned Parenthood.

After an outcry from women who help fund Komen, the money was restored, and Handel resigned in February 2012. She went on to write a scathing book that detailed her experience and blasted Planned Parenthood. It was called Planned Bullyhood.

She opens the book by taking the reader back to a pivotal moment — an interview with the head of Komen, Nancy Brinker, by NBC's Andrea Mitchell, whom Handel bitterly derides on Page 1 as "an ardent liberal and breast cancer survivor" who was "enraged" at Komen's decision to cut off funding.

Handel wrote that the Komen decision was not a "political" one but an "economic one" that was "months even years in the making."

She writes, "To Planned Parenthood and its opportunistic friends in the [Obama] White House and Congress, daring to walk away would not be tolerated."

She said when Mitchell mentioned her name, then she became "the focus of the fury of the left."

Five days later, she resigned.

In her book, Handel makes it sound as though she was a scapegoat. But that hardly seems to be the case. The New York Times and othersreported that Handel, who is against federal funding of Planned Parenthood, was instrumental in the funding cut.

Here's what the New York Times wrote the day after the Brinker interview on MSNBC:

"The controversy that burst into harsh public light this week had been brewing for years as anti-abortion advocates dogged the Komen foundation, protesting alongside its fund-raising events and complaining loudly about the grants to Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions as well as providing a broad range of other health services to women.

" 'We are really afraid, because these people who are opposed to Planned Parenthood were threatening to disrupt our races or sponsors to our races,' said John Hammarley, a Komen senior communications adviser until late last summer. ...

"The discussion within Komen about addressing the objections of anti-abortion advocates intensified last year after Karen Handel was hired as senior vice president for public policy, several former Komen employees said."

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg on the same day of the Brinker interview:

"The decision to create a rule that would cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to these sources, was driven by the organization's new senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a former gubernatorial candidate from Georgia who is staunchly anti-abortion and who has said that since she is 'pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood.' ...

"The decision, made in December, caused an uproar inside Komen. Three sources told me that the organization's top public-health official, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest immediately following the Komen board's decision to cut off Planned Parenthood. ...

"[Hammarley] called the controversy over Planned Parenthood funding 'a burr in the saddle of Komen, but it withstood the issue for years and years.' Hammarley said the issue became newly urgent after Handel was brought on last year. 'The internal debate on a senior level rose in the past eight months or so, coinciding with her hiring.' "

Distancing from Trump ... and then not

Handel is a pretty traditional conservative. In addition to being anti-abortion rights, she's for lower income taxes, cutting regulations and stricter voter ID laws.

Those are hardly deal-breakers in a conservative district that has been in Republican hands since the Carter administration. In fact, the opposite is probably true.

But the one area where Handel did seem reticent was about the president.

"I certainly support the president and will work with him where we agree," Handel said, per AP. "But my job is not to go to Congress as a rubber stamp for anybody. My job is to be the representative for the people of the 6th District, and that's what I believe regardless of who is the president."

That was pretty par for the course for Handel during the campaign. There were plenty of others who were trying to out-Trump each other. But in the district, packed with suburban, well-educated Republicans, Trump underperformed. He won by fewer than 2 points in 2016, while Price won by 23.

But that's a posture from Handel that might not be sustainable, and she is indicating it won't be. She got just under 20 percent of the vote in the primary. Given that she was in an 11-candidate field, it was actually about as impressive a showing as could be expected.

On Wednesday morning, asked on CNN if she would want Trump to campaign for her, she said, "I would hope so. I mean look, all Republicans, it's all hands on deck for us."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday said the president would do what's needed.

Handel said she recognizes that it's an important race, indicating she understands the deluge to come.

Trump is certainly paying attention. He took a measure of credit after midnight Wednesday in a tweet, claiming victory:

And then, eight hours later, he name-dropped Handel:

Between now and next year's midterms, Trump may very well be the most important issue in every race — whether Republicans want him to be or not.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.