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Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel’s hard-won stay in Congress comes to a swift end

After winning her seat in 2017 in the most expensive U.S. House race in history, Georgia Republican concedes to political newcomer Lucy McBath

By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ROSWELL, Georgia (CFP) — In April 2017, veteran Georgia Republican politico Karen Handel, after twice losing races for statewide office, had arrived at the promised land, at end of a very long road.

She won a special election to fill Georgia’s 6th District U.S. House seat, narrowly defeating Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff after $50 million was spent in a race fueled by Democratic anger over the election of Donald Trump.

Her future seemed assured in the 6th, anchored in Atlanta’s wealthy northern suburbs. The historically Republican seat had been previously held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, who gave it up to serve in Trump’s cabinet. And when Ossoff decided not to challenge Handel again in the midterm election, her seat seemed secure and her political career restored.

Lucy McBath

Karen Handel

Until Tuesday’s midterm election, when Handel lost her seat to Democrat Lucy McBath, who didn’t have Handel’s political pedigree but did have a compelling personal story and an issue — gun control.

“After carefully reviewing all of the election results data, it is clear that I came up a bit short on Tuesday,” Handel said in a letter to Atlanta’s WSB-TV. “Congratulations to Representative-Elect Lucy McBath and send her only good thoughts and much prayer for the journey that lies ahead for her.”

The final result was close. Unofficial results showed McBath with a 2,900-vote lead, out of 316,000 votes cast. For Handel, it was déjà vu all over again — in 2010, she lost a Republican primary runoff for governor by 2,500 votes.

McBath, 58, a former flight attendant, had never held political office before. But she became a gun control activist after her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was shot to death outside a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida, by a man upset about loud hip-hop music played by Davis and three of his friends.

The shooter, Michael David Dunn, was convicted of first-degree murder in Jordan’s death and sentenced to life in prison.

After her son’s death, McBath became a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and was part of a group of mothers of slain African-American teens who appeared at the 2016 Democratic Convention. She decided to run for Congress after last February’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people died.

“Six years ago, I went from a Marietta mom to a mom on a mission,” McBath said in a statement declaring victory. “After my son was lost to gun violence, I stood up and started demanding more. After Parkland, I was compelled to enter this race for Congress — to provide leadership that would be about the business of putting lives over profit.”

McBath’s quest seemed implausible, running as she was against someone who had been county commission chair in the state’s largest country (Fulton) and secretary of state and came just a percentage point short in a race that would likely have made her governor. Gun control is also not an issue that generally helps Democrats, or anybody else, in Georgia.

Yet, McBath’s victory did not come completely out of left field. The district has become more diverse in recent years, with growing African-Amercian, Latino and Asian populations. Trump had only carried the 6th by 1.5 points in 2016, and Handel had to fight hard to win it in 2017. And toward the end of the campaign, McBath was winning the money chase, outraising Handel by a substantial margin.

Handel also wasn’t the only suburban Southern Republican who found tough sledding in the midterms. Incumbents lost in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Richmond, Dallas, Houston and Miamia and even in Oklahoma City and Charleston, S.C..

But Handel’s loss, and a close call in the adjoining 7th District for Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, harbors a new reality for Georgia Republicans — in the age of Trump, suburbs are no longer safe GOP territory, even in the South.

The race for Georgia governor showed the ominous portents that may await. Democrat Stacey Abrams carried not only Fulton and DeKalb counties, both with large African-American populations, but also seven surrounding suburban counties, including the two biggest, Cobb and Gwinnett. Of the eight congressional districts that contain parts of metro Atlanta, four will now be held by Democrats, and a fifth was very nearly lost.

Republicans will, no doubt, come after McBath in 2020; the 6th is now truly a swing district. But she will have two years to build up her political profile, and she will be running for re-election in a presidential election year, which usually helps Democrats.

And Lucy McBath will always be the woman who won a race she wasn’t supposed to win, against a woman who wasn’t supposed to lose.


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