What to Know About Karen Handel, the Woman Who Made the Georgia Special Election Runoff

Apr 19, 2017

After a hard-fought, expensive race, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff narrowly missed the required majority vote to secure victory in the special election to represent Georgia's 6th Congressional District. Ossoff, who ran against 18 other candidates, will now advance to a runoff election in June against Karen Handel, who received the highest percentage of the vote among Republicans.

“I am truly humbled by the faith and trust the people of Georgia’s 6th District have placed in me,” Handel said in a statement after the results were announced. “Throughout my life, I have been called resilient, tough, even stubborn and it is that same fighting spirit I will take with me to Congress. But the hard work isn’t over yet."

But who is Karen Handel? Ossoff has been in the national headlines for weeks, as it became clear he had a unique chance to turn a red district blue. But the 55-year-old Handel, who was competing with 17 other Republicans, now finds herself there, too, especially after President Donald Trump, who has frequently tweeted about the race, lavished praise on her and called her to congratulate her.

Here's what you need to know about Handel.

She has a history in Georgia politics (and runoff elections)

Although relatively unknown on the national stage, Handel is a familiar name in Georgia. She served as Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners from 2003 to 2007, and as Georgia's Secretary of State from 2007 to 2010. (She was the first Republican elected to serve as Georgia's Secretary of State). In 2010, Handel resigned from her position as Secretary of State to run for Governor. She advanced to a primary runoff election in that race, but lost to Nathan Deal, who still serves as Governor. Deal congratulated Handel on Tuesday on advancing to a runoff against Ossoff, tweeting, "Team Deal is with you."

In 2013, Handel mounted a campaign to run for the U.S. Senate to replace Saxby Chambliss, who was not seeking reelection, but did not win the Republican primary.

Former Alaska Governor and 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed Handel in her pursuits for both Governor and Senator.

Handel has toed a fine line on Trump during the race

Although Trump took partial credit for Handel advancing to the runoff — "glad to be of help!" he tweeted - she rarely mentioned him during her campaign, according to the Associated Press.

Handel told Fortune in an interview that, if she wins in the June runoff, her allegiance is to the constituents in her district.

"I think if I have the privilege of being the next congressman for the 6th District, my responsibilities are to represent the 6th District," she said. "Are there areas where that aligns with the president and his agenda? Absolutely. But I am also extremely independent minded and have an issue of standing up for things I believe in."

Handel told Fortune that Trump was very gracious in their phone call, and their conversation gave her an opportunity to express her appreciation for his help getting out the vote.

She was involved in a controversy of Planned Parenthood funding

In 2011, Handel was named Senior Vice President of Public Policy for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, one of the leading organizations fighting breast cancer. In January of 2012, the foundation announced it was suspending its funding of Planned Parenthood. (One month later, the foundation changed course, and decided to retain funding following a public backlash). The Huffington Post reported that year that Handel was the primary force in the decision to pull funding, citing internal e-mails and an inside source.

In February 2012, Handel resigned from her position at Susan G. Komen, and denied she had a role in the decision not to renew funding. "The only place for politics in all of this came from Planned Parenthood — when they launched this vicious, vicious attack on a great organization and perpetrated what was nothing short of a shakedown to coerce a private entity to give them grants," she told CNN affiliate WXIA in 2012.

Handel published a book about her experience, Planned Bullyhood: The Truth Behind the Headlines about the Planned Parenthood Funding Battle with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, in November 2014.

Although Handel states on her Congressional campaign website that she opposes abortion, she does not mention anything about Planned Parenthood funding.

Like Trump, Handel had a business career before entering politics

Handel has been involved in politics for over two decades, serving in roles ranging from Deputy Chief of Staff to former Georgia Governor Sunny Perdue, to Deputy Chief of Staff for then-Vice President Dan Qayle's wife Marilyn during the first Bush Administration. But she also has a career in business as a public relations executive. She served as Director of Public Relations for the Southeast for the major accounting firm KPMG from 1994 to 1996; as the head of Global Communications and Public Affairs for the eyewear company CIBA Vision from 1997 to 2001; and as President/CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce from 2001 to 2003.

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