ATLANTA — Vice President Mike Pence landed Air Force Two in the middle of Georgia’s hotly contested House special election Friday, looking to give Republican Karen Handel a boost just 11 days before the vote.
But Handel did not appear at a rally with Pence, as she did last month with House Speaker Paul Ryan, instead opting for a carefully managed fundraiser with select media in attendance for the vice president’s visit. It’s the latest step in a delicate, months-long dance between Handel and President Donald Trump, who is not well-liked in Georgia’s 6th District, a traditional Republican stronghold.
Handel has embraced Trump on policy in the runoff, but his unpopularity could be a drag on her on June 20, when she faces Democrat Jon Ossoff in the nationally watched race. Yet some Republicans believe that she is committing a costly mistake by minimizing connections with the White House: de-energizing Trump’s base.
“There’s certainly been rumblings among the Trump base looking to see a more sincere embrace of the president — a public rally with the president or vice president, for example,” said Brandon Phillips, a Georgia Republican strategist who worked for one of Handel’s primary rivals, Bob Gray. “It’s important to remember that Trump grew the GOP base, not with those that attend private luncheons but by those that attend rallies.”
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham chastised Handel on her show last week for being a “not all that enthusiastic supporter” of Trump and asked her why she “[hid] him under a bushel basket” when she held a private fundraiser with the president in April. (Trump also spoke at a National Rifle Association event while in Georgia, where he called Handel “incredible.”)
“You can’t go half in, you’ve got to go full on,” Ingraham said.
“If the base isn’t energized, chasing independents is moot,” added Phillips, who also served as Trump’s Georgia director.
That push and pull between the base and the middle is a recurring problem for Republicans around the country, but the local calculus is clear. Trump won the 6th District — a well-educated, affluent slice of suburban Atlanta dotted with strip malls and leafy neighborhood sidewalks — by less than 2 points in 2016. The president struggled in many such districts around the country, but the Georgia seat swung harder against him, compared to the 2012 presidential results, than all but five of 435 House seats.
Ossoff, whose record-breaking campaign has raised more than $23 million, is cutting into the bloc of moderate Republicans there who feel alienated from Trump and his presidency. Analysts estimated Ossoff picked up at least 8 percent to 10 percent of Republican voters in the all-party primary in April, and the latest survey from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had Ossoff still attracting 13 percent of Republican voters.
The same poll showed 57 percent of district voters viewing Trump unfavorably, and Handel has not gone out of her way to emphasize the president in the campaign.
“They obviously made a calculus of trying to pretend that Trump is not an issue in the campaign, and he is, whether they like it or not,” said a Georgia Republican operative, who noted that “the missing component” to Handel’s campaign is “enthusiastic support” from Trump voters. “She’s taking all the negatives from the left by being a Republican and none of the positives from the majority of the district who voted for him.”
“It’s remarkable to me that anyone would criticize Karen for not doing enough for the Republican Party or with the president and the vice president,” said Rob Simms, a Handel adviser. “Karen is very grateful for the support she received from the president and the vice president. She is also grateful for their efforts to raise $1 million to combat the $15 million and more that Ossoff is using to try and buy this seat.”
Indeed, there are other factors in play: Some Republicans pointed to Ossoff’s blowout fundraising as the main reason for the private event with Pence on Friday.
Handel, who’s struggled with raising money in some previous campaigns, raised more than $4 million in the past two months. It’s a significant sum for a House election, but Ossoff more than tripled that total over the same period, bringing in $15 million, according to filings with the FEC.
“Sometimes you need events like this — spot on for raising money and make sure those folks realize you only got a short time, and remind them of their values,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, who attended the fundraiser with Pence and Handel on Friday. “Whether they want to do that in a public event or not, that’s just a call for them, and at the end of the day, they got what they needed to.”
The vice president’s visit also happened to come at a particularly unusual time in the national news cycle.
“If you do a public event, the vice president would be in a position in an open public event and a press event to answer questions about [former FBI Director James] Comey’s testimony, which highlights the problem that Karen Handel did not create, but she has to deal with,” said Chip Lake, a Republican consultant in the state. “There’s no question that Donald Trump is a liability to the Handel campaign. I don’t see any other way to spin that.”
“Every time Trump tweets, you bleed a few more votes,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a onetime chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. “Question is not can Republicans turn out, but how much does the bleed of Republicans voting against Trump who are casting a message vote hurt her?”
Handel acknowledged just that in a debate Tuesday, saying that she hoped the president would “change his Twitter policy.”
And far from every base GOP voter is looking for Handel to mimic the president.
“If she helps with the Trump agenda, that’s No. 1 important for me,” said Jeff Dewitt, a 47-year-old voter who said he’s received at least two-dozen phone calls about the election in the past several weeks. “Everything else is just noise.”
During the primary, Handel took a general-election stance toward the president, saying she was “not an extension of the White House,” even as her opponents wrapped themselves in Trump’s likeness and referred to themselves as “Trump Republicans.” Handel drew intense criticism from other GOP primary candidates.
“These Republicans pretty much excoriated her for three months during the primary,” said Mark Roundtree, a Republican consultant in the state. “They made it personal, so it’s more difficult for her to consolidate the base, but she’s done a lot of work to overcome that.”
In the runoff, Handel has strongly jumped on policy issues that she shares with the president, immediately commending him for pulling out the Paris climate change agreement and backing the House GOP health care plan championed by Trump.
Powered by WPeMatico