Georgia House candidates debate in Comey’s shadow

ATLANTA — President Donald Trump and former FBI Director James Comey loomed large over the second debate here between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff in their closely watched race for a Georgia congressional seat.

Ossoff and Handel debated Thursday morning for the second time in three days — this time in a meeting sponsored by an Atlanta public radio station that was also streamed online — mostly sparring over health care, taxes and foreign policy.

But with the debate beginning just an hour before Comey appeared on Capitol Hill, both candidates were pressed on Comey’s advance testimony, which was released on Wednesday. Both candidates deflected and said the investigations should continue.

When asked if Trump obstructed justice, Handel said that based on Comey’s released testimony, “I don’t think we can know one way or the other.”

“What I think is the responsible thing to do here is let the four investigations proceed,” Handel said. “It is imperative that we get to the facts of this situation and let the facts really drive where we go and what actions we take — not innuendo and all those things that have been in the press.”

Ossoff, who’s taken a centrist tone throughout the race to cut into the moderate Republican voting bloc, also called for a “complete, independent, transparent investigation” into Russia’s meddling into the American election. But he stopped short of calling for Trump’s impeachment, unlike a handful of other House Democrats.

Even as the special election has captured outsized national attention as an early test of the president’s popularity, Handel insisted that “this race is not about the president,” who won the suburban Atlanta district by just over 1 percentage point last fall.

“President Trump is the president, and I’m happy to have his support,” Handel said. “But I’m also happy to have, frankly, the support of the people of the 6th District.”

A political outside group with ties to Trump is now spending more than $1 million to boost Handel in TV ads. In April, Trump appeared at a private event alongside Handel, and Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to appear with Handel on Friday.

Early voting is already underway in the June 20 special election.

Ossoff and Handel also traded shots over the House GOP’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, which Ossoff said would “gut essential protections for Georgians with pre-existing conditions.” Ossoff called for a “bipartisan solution” to health care — but said a single-payer system, which some House Democrats support, does not have “any hope in passing Congress.”

Handel, meanwhile, said that Obamacare is “collapsing in on itself” and insisted that Ossoff was “factually incorrect” on pre-existing conditions, adding that “for individuals who currently have plans, they cannot be denied, they cannot be charged more.” Politifact, however, rated a similar claim as “mostly false,” as the House GOP’s plan would “weaken protections” for those with pre-existing conditions.

The two candidates also argued over the GOP effort to overhaul the federal tax code, Handel called for reductions in the corporate and individual tax rates, which she said will “start to spur real economic growth so that we can get the economy moving up into the 3 percent range” of overall national economic growth.

Ossoff also called for “reductions in corporate income tax rates for small- and medium-size businesses” and denied support for “any increase in income tax rates.” But he also went after Handel for being a “big-spending career politician” who does “not have a whole lot of credibility on fiscal responsibility,” citing that she “grew her office budget by 40 percent.”

It’s a similar line of attack that Handel’s Republican primary opponents tried to use against her in TV ads during the all-party primary in April, casting her as a “big spender.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has gone on to deploy it in television ads, “used her political power to serve herself — a luxury car, trips around the world, even refusing the governor’s order to cut her staff’s pay during the budget crisis.”

Handel said that she has “one of the strongest fiscal records” in Georgia, along with “[balancing] Fulton County’s budget without raising taxes” when she was a commissioner — similar to claims from the National Republican Campaign Committee’s TV ads.

Handel — a former secretary of State who has lost campaigns for Senate and governor in the past — also echoed GOP attacks on the 30-year-old Ossoff’s thin resume.

“Your track record, your experience amounts to being a junior staffer for [Rep.] Hank Johnson and producing a couple of documentaries,” she said.

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