Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, is not yet a candidate for Senate in the Peach State’s 2014 Republican primary, but the chance that she may run is already shaking up the race for the seat being vacated by two-term senator Saxby Chambliss.
Several GOP insiders tell National Review Online they believe that the 50-year-old Handel will run for the Senate next year, and that Tom Price — a congressman from the Atlanta suburbs, who had been expected to enter the Senate race — will stay in the House. Sources close to Handel say that, over the next few weeks, she’ll likely start putting together a political team, primarily on the consultant side.
But before the Handel machine kicks into gear, there’s one big catch: She and Price are close friends, and they won’t run against each other. So Handel’s allies are plotting a strategy but giving Price time to make his final decision, which he has publicly announced will come next month.
Should Price shift toward a Senate run, Handel’s operatives are ready to set their sights on the House seat Price would be vacating. But Price has good reasons to stay in the lower chamber. If his colleague and friend Paul Ryan were to become speaker or run for president, Price is in line to become chairman of the Budget Committee — or, potentially, to rise even higher in the House Republican ranks.
Price, who ran for a House leadership post — conference chairman — last fall and lost, is clearly ambitious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a Senate run, Capitol Hill sources say. Yes, he recently met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but the persistent buzz is that he may want to stay in the House, stay close to Ryan, and continue to shape the fiscal debate from his safe seat.
If Price doesn’t run, Handel’s opening would be obvious, which is why she is reportedly working behind the scenes to be ready. Price raised $300,000 after Chambliss announced his retirement, and many top names among Georgia GOP donors would be available for wooing. According to BuzzFeed, Handel has made several appearances recently at state Republican events, “making the rounds” and renewing political relationships.
Whichever seat Handel runs for, she won’t be without her detractors. Since the days when she served as a senior adviser to Second Lady Marilyn Quayle, she has become a prominent — and controversial — national conservative. She made headlines in 2012 when, as a leader of the Susan G. Komen foundation, she tried to cut the group’s support for Planned Parenthood. The move drew a fierce response from the Left, and she ended up resigning and writing a memoir about the experience.
A Senate run wouldn’t be her first statewide campaign. She was elected secretary of state in 2006, and narrowly lost a bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. Former congressman Nathan Deal outspent her and beat her in a nail-biter of a Republican runoff by about 2,500 votes; Deal went on to win the general election. Despite her loss, that statewide campaign experience is invaluable to Handel’s potential candidacy, since her grassroots network of support didn’t evaporate after her defeat.
Additionally, Georgia politics are regularly described as Balkanized, with a sharp divide between the metro-Atlanta area and the rest of the state. Handel’s statewide network gives her an edge. Most of the other contenders — declared and undeclared — have strong footholds in one region of the state or another, but don’t have any experience with statewide races.
Representative Paul Broun, who has declared his candidacy, will probably garner support from more rural areas of the state, but is expected to struggle to get substantial endorsements and financial support in the Atlanta area. And his reputation for making headline-grabbing gaffes will probably undermine any efforts to garner significant support from state GOP leaders.
Similarly, Representative Jack Kingston, who is widely expected to enter the race soon, will draw on his base in the state’s coastal area. But his district’s support is not enough for a statewide campaign. And deep-pocketed conservative groups aren’t exactly fans of the congressman, a well-known appropriator. Representative Phil Gingrey, who drew criticism for defending Todd Akin, has also officially entered the fray. He’s based in the northwestern metro-Atlanta area and would need to work hard to build connections in the rest of the state.
That’s a long way of saying that, among the top primary contenders, Handel has some unique advantages — and that’s why the behind-the-scenes talk of her candidacy is making waves in Atlanta GOP circles. Months ago, her supporters wanted her to challenge Chambliss in the primary, and they’re itching for her to get into the ring, especially as the “Price won’t run” chatter builds.
“Handel would start with an initial fundraising deficit to the members of Congress who have been able to raise campaign cash in their existing congressional campaign accounts,” according to Charlie Harper of Peach Pundit, a popular Georgia political blog. “But she also starts with the advantage of having run a recent statewide campaign with a grassroots base intact as well as national name ID.”
A Landmark/Rosetta Stone poll released on Tuesday puts her in third place in the primary contest, behind Gingrey and Broun. (Mark Rountree, president of Landmark Communications, tells me the pollsters didn’t include Price in the list of names to choose from, since they assumed his supporters would be roughly the same as Handel’s.) That poll has drawn interest from national Republicans, who aren’t eager to back Broun or Gingrey, and who want to make sure that a very winnable Senate seat stays in Republican hands.
But as Handel nears the contest, doubters remain. Some state Republican leaders don’t appreciate her hard-knocks approach to politics — she has a tendency to step on toes, and that may have been a factor in her loss to Deal. But that loss didn’t end her career, and now, it seems, she’s poised to make a comeback.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.