Handel, Ossoff dance around Trump in Georgia House race debate

GOP faces wake-up call in Georgia election
GOP faces wake-up call in Georgia election


    GOP faces wake-up call in Georgia election


GOP faces wake-up call in Georgia election 02:08

Story highlights

  • Special election in Georgia's 6th House district is June 20
  • House seat was previously held by HHS Secretary Tom Price

(CNN)Nationally, Georgia's closely watched special election for a seat in Congress -- already the most expensive House race in history -- is all about President Donald Trump.

But you wouldn't know it watching Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel debate for the first time Tuesday night ahead of the June 20 contest.
In fact, the most important moment of the debate came in Handel's answer -- sure to be played on repeat in Democratic television ads -- to a question about the minimum wage.
    "This is an example of a fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative," Handel said. "I do not support a livable wage."
    She added that she instead wants "an economy that is robust with low taxes and regulation."
    The dynamics of the race -- Handel's desire to avoid the most controversial planks of Trump's agenda, and Ossoff's need to project a moderate voice in a traditionally Republican district -- were evident from the very first question, which asked about Trump's executive order banning travel to the United States from several majority Muslim countries.
    Handel -- seeking to avoid Trump's terminology while defending the policy -- referred to a "travel, ah, proposal."
    Ossoff didn't answer directly at all until a moderator followed up, asking for a yes or no. Only then did Ossoff say he wants such decisions to be based on intelligence, rather than a blanket policy on certain countries of origin.
    The two were pressed on where they would break from their parties' most recent presidents.
    Ossoff criticized former President Barack Obama for failing to enforce the "red line" of using chemical weapons in Syria.
    Handel needled Trump's budget proposal for cutting funding for science and cancer research.
    "Additionally, I would really like to recommend some Twitter policy changes," she said. "Sometimes you should just put down the computer, the phone, and walk away."
    Progressives for months have seen the Georgia race as their best opportunity to rebuke Trump. The liberal blog Daily Kos helped turn Ossoff into an online fundraising phenomenon, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- criticized for downplaying other House special elections in even redder districts -- has been on the ground in the northern Atlanta suburbs for months.
    But Ossoff rarely invoked Trump's name, and did so only in shots at Handel. Instead, he cast himself as an economics-driven voice who would work across the aisle.
    Handel, meanwhile, repeatedly attempted to latch Ossoff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
    Prodding Ossoff's residence -- he and his fiancée live just outside the district while she attends medical school -- Handel said: "I've been in Georgia almost as long as you've been alive. You might live just outside of the district, but your values are 3,000 miles away in San Francisco."
    The debate showed the danger that the House Republican health care bill poses, as well.
    Though she backed the bill, Handel told a personal story -- citing a sister born with pre-existing conditions -- to underscore her argument that she'd never back a bill that undercut coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
    "I will not, not be lectured by you or anyone else," she said.
    Ossoff, though, repeatedly pointed out what independent fact-checkers have found: The GOP bill would weaken protections for those with pre-existing conditions by allowing states to opt out of rules that prohibit insurers from charging those with pre-existing conditions more.
    Ossoff also hit Handel for the Susan G. Komen Foundation's decision during her tenure as vice president for policy to halt its partnership with Planned Parenthood. The charity eventually reversed that decision and resumed funding breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, leading to Handel's ouster and her rise to prominence through a book called "Planned Bullyhood."