Senate hopeful hits her stride

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — In the crowded Georgia GOP Senate primary, Karen Handel could be hitting her stride at just the right time.

The former Georgia secretary of State’s underfunded campaign has struggled to break out of the seven-way race, but a recent slight against her lack of a college degree from her top opponent has given her a new and salient opening.

Boosted by an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and missteps from her male opponents, Handel may have hit a sweet spot with less than a month to go before the May 20 primary to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). Her goal is just to finish in the top two and earn a spot in the July 22 runoff for the right to take on Democrat Michelle Nunn in Democrats’ top pickup opportunity.

“There’s something to be said for having done this before,” Handel, who fell just short in the 2010 gubernatorial runoff, told The Hill in an interview in her suburban Atlanta campaign office last week. “The key is to start building your momentum at the right time.”

But, she admitted, “It helps also to have unforced errors from the other candidates.”

The most beneficial one came earlier this month when a video from January surfaced showing wealthy businessman David Perdue telling supporters, while stressing his international experience, “I mean, there’s a high school graduate in this race, OK? I’m sorry, but these issues are so much broader, so complex.”

Handel’s campaign struck back quickly, painting the former Fortune 500 CEO as out of touch with average Georgians, the majority of whom also don’t have college degrees. It also allowed the campaign to highlight Handel’s hardscrabble upbringing after leaving an abusive home at the age of 17 as a contrast to Perdue’s wealth and business record.

The punch came at a time when both Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston, another heavy spender in the race, were both susceptible. While Perdue had previously spent heavily introducing himself on the pricey Atlanta airwaves, he had cut back his heavy TV buys when his comments came to light. And Kingston had released an ad with his beat-up station wagon emphasizing his frugal roots that many state observers say flopped with metro voters.

“She knows the importance of momentum and what the different motions of a campaign are. I think she understands that rhythm, she struck the right time when that video got released, and [Perdue] was off the air,” said Georgia GOP strategist Eric Tanenblatt.

An InsiderAdvantage poll from last week showed Handel gaining traction and Perdue still leading the pack at 19 percent. Kingston (R-Ga.), who has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was second with 15 percent support, but Handel had the biggest surge and was nipping at Kingston’s heels with 13 percent, up from 5 percent in the prior InsiderAdvantage poll. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey followed with 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively. But 32 percent were still undecided.

“The Perdue comments gave her a platform and a microphone that she didn’t have before. To her credit, she has taken advantage of that microphone,” said Georgia Republican strategist Chip Lake, who previously worked for Gingrey’s campaign.

Perdue has continued to lead in recent public polling, and Handel’s best path to advance likely is leapfrogging Kingston. 

“David’s message is he’s an outsider with the right experience to fix Washington and that’s clearly resonating,” said Perdue spokesman Derrick Dickey, pointing out their consistent lead shows voters are moving toward the former Reebok and Dollar General executive. 

Kingston’s campaign said the 11-term congressman, who just came under attack from a super-PAC, is focusing on his own race and not his opponents’ back-and-forth.

“I think the people of Georgia know Jack Kingston and know what he’s about and what he stands for,” said Kingston campaign manager Chris Crawford. 

Still, Handel argues she’s the best positioned to take on Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who has nearly $4 million in the bank.

She adds that gaffes from other candidates have worried national strategists. Both Gingery and Broun have waded into controversies on rape and abortion, and Kingston suggested poor children should sweep the floors to get free school lunches.

“I’d love to see Michelle Nunn drop the ‘war on women’ card against me,” said Handel. “Every single one of the other top candidates have already generated a headline that plays right into the hands of Democrats.”

Still, Handel’s Achilles’ heel in the race has been her fundraising. Even though she’s the only candidate who’s run statewide before, she’s consistently trailed her other opponents, including the self-funding Perdue and the well-heeled Kingston and Gingery, who were able to transfer substantial funds from their congressional accounts to their Senate campaign coffers.

In the first fundraising quarter of 2014, she raised only $295,000 — the least of the major candidates — and had only $387,000 in the bank.

“I’ve always had enough money to do what I need to do in races,” said Handel, noting she was heavily outspent in her past races, too.

According to her campaign, she’s seen a surge in fundraising after both Perdue’s comments and Palin’s endorsement and visit for her, raising more than $300,000 in just the last month. She’ll need that, and likely more, to sustain her newfound momentum for the next month. With her statewide name ID, her rise may have been inevitable, but she’s still pulling nearly even with other better-funded candidates. 

“She’s a prior known product. If she can get a hold of money and get on TV, she could easily climb,” said GOP pollster Matt Towery, whose firm showed Handel’s rise last week.

Handel is working to paint herself not just as a Washington outsider but one far to the right on the conservative spectrum.

In her nasty 2010 governor’s runoff against Nathan Deal, she was painted as too soft on social issues and spending. After losing, she became a top official with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, then resigned amid a very public spat with the breast cancer organization after the group pulled its support for Planned Parenthood, then reversed course and agreed to continue funding that group. That stand won her plaudits within the anti-abortion rights movement. 

In her interview with The Hill, she blasted the trio of congressmen for failing to lead in Washington. She specifically criticized them for a “fundamental lack of leadership” and being “asleep at the wheel” for allowing ObamaCare to pass.

She has also spoken out against GOP leaders in the Senate. When asked if she would back Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for GOP leader, Handel reiterated that Republicans “need new leadership” and that the minority leader’s voters “can make a determination for him” in his own tough reelection contest.

Pressed on what lawmakers she’d model herself after in the Senate, she listed Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). She especially praised the rabble-rousing Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as “a person of great passion,” and said Washington could use the “coalition of fire in the belly” he’s trying to build.

With early voting beginning next week, Peach State observers expect the race to take more twists and turns, but many agree it’s Handel who’s been the biggest beneficiary of the past few weeks. 

“I’ve said for months that anybody that counts out Karen Handel just because she’s not funded is making a mistake,” said Lake.

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