WASHINGTON― Democratic House candidate Jon Ossoff said it was mostly women who propelled his surprisingly successful campaign against Republican rival Karen Handel, whom he nearly defeated in a special election Tuesday night in a historically red Georgia district.
“This is a story about women in this community,” Ossoff said after a first-place primary showing that puts him in a runoff with Handel.
“This comes down to grassroots intensity,” Ossoff added on MSNBC Wednesday. “The thousands of volunteers and organizers, so much of it led by women who have been pounding the pavement and knocking on doors for months here in Georgia, and it’s that kind of grassroots momentum that will carry us to victory on June 20.”
Handel gained notoriety in 2012, when she took aim at women’s health care as an executive at Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The Huffington Post has reported that she quietly drove the charity’s controversial decision to cut off grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings because of her own opposition to abortion rights. The Komen organization insisted its decision had nothing to do with abortion politics, but internal emails showed Handel instigated the move and strategized how to spin it because wanted to break ties with Planned Parenthood.
The Komen charity faced a huge backlash over the move: A drop in donations cost the organization $77 million, or 22 percent of its income, and Handel was forced to resign after several members of Congress and some of Komen’s own affiliates demanded that she be fired. Komen quickly restored the grants to Planned Parenthood after Handel left.
Handel went onto publish a book about the incident, called Planned Bullyhood, in which she insisted that the decision to cut off grants to the family planning provider was “nonpolitical” and ripped on the organization for fueling such a strong public backlash against Komen.
“It’s clear that Planned Parenthood went out of its way to paint me as some sort of a zealot ― a Trojan-horse zealot who came into Komen, and within 10 to 11 months had completely turned the place upside down,” Handel wrote in the memoir. “That’s clearly not who I am and it’s not what happened.”
Handel’s miscalculation at Komen may damage her in the race against Ossoff. Georgia voters anecdotally say that even Republican women are turned off by Handel’s move against cancer screenings.
Some conservative women were swayed by Handel’s potential to make history as Georgia’s first Republican woman in Congress. Stephanie DeWitt, of Cobb, Georgia, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that’s why she voted for Handel.
“For some, she’s establishment, but she’s a conservative woman,” DeWitt said. “And that’s new for this area.”
Handel is a perennial Republican candidate in Georgia. She was elected secretary of state in 2006, quit after two years to run for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, lost that primary, and then ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2014. Now, she seems to be having better luck.
Handel was the top Republican vote-getter in Tuesday’s special election for the seat vacated by Tom Price, who was tapped by President Donald Trump as health and human services secretary. Hasndel is headed to a June runoff against Democrat Ossoff, who fell just short of the 50 percent of votes required to win the seat outright.
Handel boasts endorsements from several anti-abortion groups, and has made her position clear on Planned Parenthood funding, which is in jeopardy in the Republican-led Congress. Ossoff, a former documentary filmmaker and congressional aide to Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson (D), supports abortion rights, birth control access and federal funding for Planned Parenthood. If he manages to defeat Handel in June, he would be the first Democrat to win in the suburban Atlanta district since the 1970s.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund has launched a six-figure campaign in support of Ossoff.
“Today, Georgians sent a message: They want reproductive health care champions, like Jon Ossoff, in Washington, D.C.,” Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said Tuesday. “Women marched to the polls to elect a candidate who will make protecting women’s programs and access to health care a top priority.”