In Georgia, runoff candidates Ossoff, Handel cast each other as rubber stamps

Candidates in Georgia's 6th Congressional District race Republican Karen Handel, left, and Democrat Jon Ossoff prepare to debate Tuesday, June 6, 2017, in Atlanta. The two meet in a June 20 special election.(Branden Camp/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA - A nationally watched Georgia congressional race may turn on which candidate voters decide is less of a lackey to unpopular figures in Washington.

Republican Karen Handel insisted repeatedly during a debate Tuesday that Jon Ossoff, her opponent in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, is a tool of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and "the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party."

Handel mentioned the California Democrat about a dozen times in less than an hour as she and Ossoff met two weeks ahead of a June 20 special election in metro Atlanta's typically conservative northern suburbs.

"You're values are from 3,000 miles away in San Francisco," Handel said.

Ossoff, who has become a national face of the opposition movement to President Donald Trump, countered with catchphrases he wants voters to remember as he tries to pull a major upset ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

"I'll work with anyone in Washington," he promised, describing himself as "an independent voice."

Ossoff made those two promises more than a dozen times combined. And he suggested Handel is the candidate who'd be just another partisan member of Congress, calling her support for Trump's policies "the very definition of a rubber stamp."

The exchanges highlighted the national intensity of a surprisingly competitive race that is on track to become the most expensive congressional contest in U.S. history. The outcome won't tip the scales in Congress, since Democrats needs to flip 24 Republican seats to regain a majority.

But an Ossoff victory would rattle Washington along the lines of Republican Scott Brown's 2010 victory in a Massachusetts special Senate election. Later that year, Republicans routed Democrats in the midterms.

Handel and Ossoff have tried for weeks to downplay the national significance of the race, insisting their contest is about Georgia voters. But that facade crumbled Tuesday.

A former Georgia secretary of state, Handel hammered Ossoff for a donor list littered with addresses from California, Massachusetts and New York, adding that's "where your loyalties" would be in Congress.

Ossoff did not dispute his national fundraising appeal but emphasized that his average donation "is less than $50," while Handel's campaign "has been bailed out by unaccountable Washington Super PACs."

Ossoff has outraised Handel, fueled by out-of-state donors, but she's benefited from millions in spending by GOP-aligned political action committees, including one backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Making his first bid for public office, the 30-year-old office Ossoff labeled the 55-year-old Handel a "career politician" who will "impose her views" regardless of her constituents' wishes.

And previewing Democratic attacks certain to dominate the 2018 campaigns, Ossoff criticized Handel for "supporting a bill that guts" protections for Americans with pre-existing medical conditions. Handel insisted the Republican health care bill does no such thing.

The bill, which is pending in the Senate, maintains current requirements that insurers cannot deny coverage based on a patient's medical history, but it could allow insurers to charge higher premiums based on medical history. Ossoff said nominal protections are "useless" if consumers "can't afford the plan."

He went on to hammer Handel for her tenure as an executive at the Susan G. Komen Foundation. She was an executive when the organization sought in 2012 to roll back its support for Planned Parenthood, whose services include abortion. Handel resigned amid the controversy.

She said Tuesday that she was one of many figures who considered the controversial policy, and she scolded Ossoff for "misrepresentations" about her support for women's health. "I will not be lectured by you," she said, recalling "holding the hands of friends" suffering from breast cancer.

Ossoff led 17 other candidates, including Handel, in an initial round of voting with 48 percent. But getting to a majority isn't a given in a district where Republican nominees routinely clear 60 percent. Trump was an exception, narrowly topping Democrat Hillary Clinton in November but falling short of 50 percent.

Handel is betting on the fundamentally Republican leanings of a district that has elected Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker; Johnny Isakson, now Georgia's senior U.S. senator; and Tom Price, who resigned to become Trump's health secretary.

She emphasized her support for GOP orthodoxy on cutting taxes and regulations, arguing such moves would spur "3 or 4 percent growth" in the economy - the same assumptions used in Trump's proposed budget and one that many economists reject.

She mockingly asked Ossoff who he'd be voting for, a dig at Ossoff's residence. He lives just south of the district, in Atlanta, a decision he says allows his fiancée to walk to her medical school classes and training.

He answered that he was "born and raised" in the 6th District and noted that Handel was "born in Washington, D.C."

Handel shot back, "I didn't get to pick where I was born."