Even before she claimed one of two berths in the June 20 runoff for the Sixth District congressional race, Karen Handel’s defiance was on full display Tuesday night.
On every linen-covered table was a vase of white carnations. And at the base of every vase lay a string of fake pearls.
This was no message intended for Jon Ossoff, the Democrat whose million-dollar grip on voters roused by Donald Trump wasn’t strong enough to avoid two more months of campaigning.
No, the pearls were a tasteful but unmistakable middle finger aimed at the Republican men who, over the past six years, had thwarted Handel’s attempts to join the GOP power club. Specifically, her 2010 race for governor, and a 2014 bid for the U.S. Senate.
The gentlemen in question, certainly, might point to other reasons for Handel’s past failures. A sometimes acerbic style, for instance.
Nonetheless, for the first time since she left the post of secretary of state to make her gubernatorial run, Handel won a GOP primary on Tuesday – for that’s what the race for the No.2 spot became, essentially. And for the first time, Republicans in Georgia are now poised to send a woman to Congress.
Do not expect her to emphasize it. Handel represents a party that officially condemns identity politics. But the fact will be there, in the subtext.
”Throughout my life and throughout my career, I’ve been told more times than I can count that ‘You can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that,’” Handel, a strand of pearls at her throat, told supporters who gathered to watch the votes roll in.
Many of them displayed a similar taste in jewelry. Which we should probably explain.
Fred Davis is a California-based maker of campaign TV ads. In 2014, on behalf of U.S. Senate contender David Perdue, Davis created a TV spot that featured his GOP primary rivals, including Handel, as crying babies. The girl baby wore a strand of pearls.
In the Sixth District campaign, Davis worked for former state senator Dan Moody, a self-funder backed by Perdue. In his debut ad, Moody wielded a large shovel, ready to tackle the load of manure dropped by a parade of elephants. One of the elephants wore a giant strand of pearls around its neck.
Advertisers would call this little detail an “Easter egg.” But Republican women know when they’re being mocked. Moody finished fourth on Tuesday.
Among the supporters Handel singled out from the stage on Tuesday was Sue Everhart, the former state GOP chairman whom two governors – Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal – had tried to depose. Both failed.
Talk to Republican women, and you will often hear stories of being restricted to organizing events or stuffing envelopes.
While we waited for the ballot results, Everhart told me of the time a high-ranking Republican man – she didn’t want to name him, because he has come around – expressed surprise when he found out that Everhart had once been vice president of a bank, and that her late husband had been a doctor.
“I said, ‘What difference does it make?’ Everhart said. “He said, ‘In our world, it makes a lot of difference.’”
I pushed Everhart to name the difficulties that come with a skirt and heels in a GOP primary. “From county chairmen down, you can get support. But when you go to the higher-ups to get the money, they’re not even going to talk to you,” the former GOP chairman said.
Handel’s victory party bore this out. Not only was it small, but it was absent any of the high-octane Georgia Republicans who populate the state Capitol.
This was not a big-money affair, acknowledged John Garst, president of Rosetta Stone Communications, a local campaign firm. Garst has been with Handel from the beginning.
“Now we have the question: Will the Republican power crowd that isn’t here right now – there’s going to be some talking done in the backroom,” Garst said. “Do they get behind her or do they not?”
The most influential Republican at the Handel party stood silently against a wall while his candidate claimed her victory. Rob Simms was Handel’s chief of staff when she was secretary of state, and now has a D.C. consulting firm. In between, he was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the organization in charge of House Republican races.
So Simms is familiar with the problems Republicans have had when it comes to fielding female candidates. But the GOP is getting better at it, he said.
“With Karen, you’ve had someone who has typically been the outsider. She’s younger. She hasn’t been in the Legislature for 20 years, and she’s not independently wealthy. So she can’t self-finance,” Simms said. But voters respond to her persistence, he said.
On one hand, for Republicans, Handel may have been the best candidate to emerge from the Sixth District scrum – considering the tens of thousands of angry women who marched through Atlanta streets in protest of President Trump’s January inauguration.
But there’s a disadvantage to being a Republican woman in Georgia, too. To compensate for those disadvantages enumerated by Simms, Handel has developed a pair of sharp elbows.
She campaigned against the “good ol’ boy” system in the state Capitol during her failed 2010 race for governor. (She finished first in the initial round of primary voting, but lost the GOP runoff to Nathan Deal.) Two years later, in her book on her decision to leave the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation after an internal fight over Planned Parenthood and abortion, Handel ticked off a series of “alleged ethical lapses” committed by now-Governor Nathan Deal.
They have supposedly made up. Handel endorsed Deal’s 2014 re-election, and the governor on Wednesday declared himself solidly behind Handel’s bid for Congress. Yet the relationship bears watching.
“Some call me tough. Others call me scrappy. Some even say I’m stubborn. And all of that is true,” Handel said Tuesday night as her husband Steve nodded in agreement.
“We’ll celebrate a little bit tonight,” Handel told the crowd. Her voice dropped, and took on a sly, finely honed edge. “Then we need to consider that it might just be time to send another set of pearls to Washington.”