President Donald Trump and the top issues facing the United States were front and center during the first televised debate ahead of the closely-watched runoff to fill an open U.S. House seat in Georgia.
Even the moderator of the debate held by Atlanta television station WSB, anchor Justin Farmer, nodded at one point at the national implications of the race, segueing from a commercial break by saying the debate was “not just for Georgians, it’s on the national stage.”
With money pouring into the race on both sides, the special election slated for June 20th is the most expensive U.S. House race ever. And both Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff went after each other Tuesday night over campaign spending from outside Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. Handel repeatedly blasted Ossoff for fueling his campaign with donations from out of state, calling out places like California and New York. She mentioned House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) several times, attempting to tie Ossoff to Democratic leadership and “San Francisco values.” Ossoff went after Handel, too, arguing that her campaign has stayed afloat with the help of national super PACs.
The WSB debate panel’s questions forced Ossoff and Handel each to reckon with Trump’s policies and other national issues, too, after a campaign in which the candidates had avoided talking about the President to a certain extent.
Ossoff criticized Trump in several instances, from saying he opposed the President’s travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries to criticizing Trump for pulling out of the Paris climate accord. He also said he was “dismayed by the weak trajectory” of the current administration’s foreign policy, chastising the administration for wavering on its commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Ossoff slammed the White House for not having a “firm response” to Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election, too.
He hesitated to come out strongly against Trump’s presidency on the whole, however.
Asked if he was part of the “resistance” opposing Trump, Ossoff would not define himself as an anti-Trump candidate.
“I hope to have the opportunity to work with the President to get things done for Georgia,” Ossoff said, after noting that he would not get a congratulatory tweet from Trump if he won.
He added that he would “stand up to anyone, regardless of their party” if he disagrees with them in an apparent appeal to moderate voters.
And while Ossoff said he opposed Trump’s travel ban, he did not offer a full-throated condemnation of the executive order. He instead said the travel ban was not an “effective” national security policy.
Handel embraced some of Trump’s policies during the debate, from backing his travel ban to defending the House GOP bill to repeal and replace Obamacare that has been pushed forcefully by the White House. But Handel also drew contrasts with the President, emphasizing that she does not support any “religious litmus test” for immigrants and noting that she does not agree with some of Trump’s proposed budget cuts, such as those to scientific and medical research.
She also suggested that Trump lay off Twitter.
“Sometimes you should just put down the computer, the phone, and walk away,” she said.
Handel was also asked to answer for Greg Gianforte, the Republican who recently won an at-large congressional seat in Montana after being charged for allegedly assaulting a reporter for The Guardian. Gianforte promoted the Georgia race in a fundraising email for the House Republicans’ campaign arm, and Handel pointedly said in the debate that Gianforte was not fundraising for her campaign. She said that she does not condone Gianforte’s behavior toward the reporter.
But after distancing herself from Gianforte, Handel lamented that people “on both sides of the aisle” have become increasingly aggressive toward political candidates. She claimed that a reporter associated with a liberal organization “almost literally accosted” her at a Memorial Day event.
While the candidates took their most concrete positions to date relative to Trump in the WSB debate, any single answer from either of them was perhaps overshadowed by a remark Handel made in response to a question from a viewer about raising the minimum wage.
“I do not support a livable wage,” she said. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, quickly blasted out video of Handel’s remarks, and the Ossoff campaign highlighted the gaffe on Twitter after the debate:
"Someone working full time should earn a decent standard of living." – Jon Ossoff pic.twitter.com/hf1yO7YfLX
— Team Ossoff (@TeamOssoff) June 7, 2017