Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel clashed on the debate stage for the first time Tuesday night, sparring face-to-face over their resumes, campaign financing and foreign policy positioning in Georgia’s special House election after months of trading campaign attacks over the airwaves.
Ossoff and Handel, who are running to replace HHS Secretary Tom Price in Congress in suburban Atlanta, stuck largely to the same lines of attack repeated in the flood of TV ads that have made their race the most expensive House contest ever. But both of the candidates also weighed in on President Donald Trump, with Handel advising the president to change his “Twitter policy.”
“Sometimes you should just put down the computer, the phone and walk away,” Handel said.
But Handel also accused Ossoff of not wanting the people of Georgia to “know that he is a liberal Democrat and he’s supported by the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party,” adding that he “rarely mentions that he’s a Democrat.”
Ossoff’s messaging has indeed taken a centrist tone, in an effort to cut into the large moderate Republican voting bloc in Georgia’s 6th District.
Ossoff, meanwhile, hammered Handel on her record at the Susan G. Komen Foundation where she “led an effort to defund live saving breast screenings” in 2012, Ossoff said. Handel resigned after the group sparked uproar over cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood.
Handel said she was “tasked by the CEO” to “develop options for how the organization could disengage from Planned Parenthood” and she will be “on the front line of fighting for women.”
“I’m not going to be lectured by you, Jon,” Handel added.
Ossoff, who’s raised more than $15 million for his campaign, mostly from out-of-state online donors, was accused by Handel of “being propelled by the most liberal of elements, from Nancy Pelosi to Jane Fonda to Hank Johnson to donors, a majority of which, are from California, Massachusetts and New York.”
Ossoff said that “many more Georgians have contributed to my campaign than Secretary Handel’s campaign,” noting that his contributions average less than $50.
“Your values are some 3,000 miles away in San Francisco,” Handel added. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with House GOP leadership, has echoed that line in its own TV ads. The group also hired a trolley to drive around the building hosting the debate with a sign that read: “San Francisco ❤ Jon Ossoff.”
Both sides, fueled by campaign contributions and super PACs, have seen unprecedented spending in the race — more than $30 million reserved on TV ads alone.
Handel also addressed bubbling tension with the press, when she was asked about a fundraising email sent by Montana Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte, on behalf of the NRCC, that named her. Gianforte, who won the Montana special election last month, faces assault charges for allegedly attacking a reporter with The Guardian.
Handel said “not a penny” went to her campaign and she didn’t condone the behavior. But she did share her own story when a “reporter supposedly representing some very liberal, Democratic organization almost literally accosted me” at a Memorial Day event.
“Unfortunately, in the world of campaigning right now on both sides of the political aisle, individuals have become incredibly aggressive toward candidates,” Handel said.
While previous House special elections this year have been in pro-Trump districts in Kansas and Montana, the president barely won this district in Georgia, and Handel said that she disagreed with aspects in his budget, in addition to offering him advice on his Twitter habits. Ossoff, chasing moderate Republicans who once made the district a GOP stronghold, said he’d be willing to work with the president on some issues but would also “stand up” to him when he thought Trump was wrong.
“There’s no margin for error in Georgia’s 6th District and Karen Handel can’t survive a double digit swing like the races in Kansas and Montana,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in the state. “But this is largely being dictated by the national environment.”