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Who’s Going to Challenge Karen Handel Without Jon Ossoff?

Georgia’s 6th District primary is on Tuesday

GOP Rep. Karen Handel is running for her first full term, but there won’t be a rematch of last year’s special election. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
GOP Rep. Karen Handel is running for her first full term, but there won’t be a rematch of last year’s special election. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Georgia’s 6th District was in the news nonstop this time last year when the special election to fill former Republican Rep. Tom Price’s seat became the most expensive House race in history.

GOP nominee Karen Handel, the former Georgia secretary of state, ended up defeating big-spending Democrat Jon Ossoff by 4 points (with plenty of help from outside Republican groups). She is now running for her first full term.

But fast forward a year, and this contest isn’t getting anywhere near the same level of attention since Democrats have dozens of other races on their radar. But as an affluent suburban district that President Donald Trump carried by less than 2 points in 2016, the 6th is still a Democratic target. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.

Ossoff, who still has $652,000 in his campaign account, isn’t running. But at least four other Democrats will face off in Tuesday’s primary. If no one surpasses 50 percent of the vote, the top-two finishers will advance to a June runoff.

Making a name

“You have three candidates who started off as unknowns, in a media market that is very difficult to create name ID,” said a Democratic consultant familiar with the race who thinks any combination of candidates could make the runoff.

“It’s very plausible that a generic Democrat in a district like that — if it turns out to be a good Democratic cycle — even a generic first-time Democratic candidate is able to be very competitive,” the consultant said.

Former local TV news anchor Bobby Kaple ended the pre-primary reporting period, which ended on May 2, with the most money in the bank — $290,000. He raised $53,000 during the period, and has loaned his campaign nearly $200,000 over the course of the race.

Kaple has picked up endorsements and cash from some big-name national and local politicians. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer has donated to his campaign, as has the moderate Blue Dog PAC. He’s backed by Louisiana Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, who also represented Georgia in the House.

Kaple talks about preventing Trump from repealing the 2010 health care law, saying, “Thank God for Obamacare” in a spot about his twins, who were born prematurely. Middle Class Values PAC had spent about $83,000 on direct mail for Kaple as of Friday.

Activist Lucy McBath, the only woman and African-American in the primary, entered the race in March. She had been running for state House but switched to the congressional race after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. McBath’s son was shot and killed at a gas station in Florida in 2012 by a man who complained his music was too loud. She had been the national spokesperson for advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety but is currently on an unpaid leave of absence.

McBath has the backing of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, EMILY’s List and Giffords PAC, the organization founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But having entered the race late, she lags in fundraising. She ended the pre-primary reporting period with $69,000.

Spreading the message

Outside groups are helping her get her message out. Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund has spent on direct mail supporting McBath and made a $540,000 TV ad buy in mid-May. The spot tells McBath’s personal story about gun violence, saying she’ll stand up to Trump and the National Rifle Association.

A third Democrat in the race, businessman Kevin Abel, raised $94,000 during the pre-primary reporting period, ending with $111,000 in the bank. He’d loaned his campaign $150,000.

In an ad last month, he directly addressed Trump, introducing himself as an immigrant who built a business.

“I approve this message, sir,” Abel says, “but America was a better, more decent and kinder place before you.”

Although the president is less popular in this part of the state, Handel actually over-performed him last year, winning 52 percent of the vote compared to Trump’s 48 percent.

But she’s now also running as the incumbent.

“Handel was viewed as a different kind of Republican than Trump, and now she has some real ownership of Trump and D.C. dysfunction that she didn’t have when she was running in the special,” the Democratic consultant said.

But as national Democrats liked to point out after their loss here, there are many more districts more competitive than Georgia’s 6th.

National Republicans complained about Handel as a candidate during the special election, but she ended the pre-primary reporting period this year with $795,000. Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC that was the biggest outside spender in the special election, no longer has an office in the district. CLF had committed to keeping its office open through November, regardless of who won. The fact that it doesn’t have any office in the Atlanta suburbs anymore suggests Republicans are less worried about Handel’s re-election than those of other GOP members.

But a year after such a high-profile special election, Democrats remain optimistic about this seat flipping in a favorable national environment.

“There certainly won’t be the resources and the structure of last time, but the work the Ossoff campaign did to corral the organic energy still has some shelf life,” the Democratic consultant said.

Watch: Which House Races Are the Parties Targeting? Look to the Money, the TV Ad Money

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