Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office


Following years of experience in state and local government, Republican Karen Handel of Georgia won a special election to the U.S. House of Representatives on June 20, 2017, in what was called the most expensive congressional race in American history.1 With her win in a suburban Atlanta district, Handel became the sixth woman, and the first Republican woman, elected to the House from the state of Georgia.2

Karen Handel was born on April 18, 1962, in Washington, DC, and grew up just outside the District in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Life at home was not easy: her mother, who was abusive at times, had an addiction to alcohol. Handel, the oldest of three siblings, helped take care of her younger sister who was born with a serious medical condition. At the age of 17, Handel moved out after her mother pulled a gun on her. Living with neighbors, Handel worked two jobs and graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro in 1980. “I know how hard I worked to be able to keep up with school and make A’s and to be there every day, while at the same time getting my sister off to school,” Handel remembered in 2012. Handel attended Prince George’s Community College in Largo, and the University of Maryland, University College, taking accounting courses at night and on the weekends to fit around her work schedule.3

Handel eventually took a job with the Hallmark Company, where she worked alongside the Susan G. Komen Foundation to raise awareness about breast cancer. Eventually, she served as deputy chief of staff for Marilyn Quayle, the Second Lady of the United States, and ran Quayle’s breast cancer awareness campaign.4 Handel and her husband, Steve, moved to the Atlanta area in 1994.5

After settling in Georgia, Handel worked in the private sector, and in 2002 ran unsuccessfully for an open seat on the Fulton County commission.6 Within weeks, Handel was named deputy chief of staff for Georgia’s new Republican Governor Sonny Perdue.7 When the chairman of the Fulton County commission resigned in the summer of 2003, however, Handel ran for the open seat and won in a rout.8

Handel worked with communities across the county on development programs and traffic problems, going up against Democrats and Republicans alike. “What matters to me is not the opinions of six people on the commission, but the people of Fulton County,” she remarked in 2006.9 She also faced gender discrimination on the council. “It’s a fact that we have some good ol’ boys out there,” she said in 2004. “The challenge is to figure out how to deal with being tested.”10

In 2006 Handel won election as Georgia’s secretary of state.11 After a bruising GOP primary, Handel took 54 percent of the vote in the general election and became the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction.12 As secretary of state, Handel audited Georgia’s electronic voting machines, worked to ensure early voting, enforced Georgia’s strict voter identification law, and installed tighter ethics rules.13

At the end of 2009, Handel resigned as secretary of state to run for governor. With an endorsement from former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Handel won a plurality in the 2010 GOP primary (34 percent of the vote), but lost to former Republican Representative John Nathan Deal in a runoff.14 After the election, Handel worked for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, before stepping down as vice president of public policy in 2012 amid a dispute over the foundation’s relationship with Planned Parenthood.15 Two years later Handel lost the Republican nomination for the United States Senate.16

In early 2017, Representative Tom Price of Georgia resigned from the House after being confirmed as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Donald J. Trump administration. Handel, who lived in Price’s Sixth District, was one of 18 candidates to run for the open House seat.17 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described the race as “an early test of President Donald Trump’s popularity” and “a bitter battle between Republican factions.” “There will be many times when I’m supportive of the president’s initiatives,” Handel said in February 2017, “and when I’m not, my job is to make them work for the 6th.”18

Throughout the campaign, tens of millions of dollars poured in from across the country.19 Health care featured prominently in the race. Handel, the GOP frontrunner, supported the efforts of President Trump and congressional Republicans to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act.20

During the special election each candidate ran on the same ballot. If no one received 50 percent of the vote, the top two headed to a runoff. On Election Day, Handel captured 20 percent of the vote, good enough for second place, while Democrat Jon Ossoff finished first with 48 percent.21 Before the runoff, Trump held a fundraiser for Handel, and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin traveled to suburban Atlanta to campaign for her.22 With the nation’s attention on Georgia, Handel beat Ossoff with 52 percent of the vote.23

Handel took the Oath of Office on June 26, 2017, and was assigned to two committees: the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the powerful Judiciary Committee.24 “This is an extraordinary honor and the greatest privilege that I think I have ever had,” she said on the House Floor after being sworn in.25

Handel sponsored five bills during her time in Congress, two of which passed the House. On April 27, 2018, she introduced the Standard Merger and Acquisitions Reviews Through Equal Rules Act of 2018—the SMARTER Act— which would overhaul how the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice reviewed potential violations of antitrust law. “Despite the shared responsibilities for the antitrust review between the FTC and the DOJ,” Handel pointed out, “both agencies follow dramatically different processes, meaning that businesses are held to conflicting standards and procedure.” Opponents said the bill weakened the government’s enforcement abilities, but Handel argued her bill would result in “more transparency.” The SMARTER Act passed the House on May 9, 2018, but the Senate never considered it.26

Her other successful measure was the Community Safety and Security Act of 2018, which Handel submitted in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sessions v. Dimaya, which said that the phrase “crime of violence” in America’s immigration law was “unconstitutionally vague.” Leading debate on the bill, Handel said Congress needed “to provide the necessary clarity in the law.” Her bill “enumerates what crimes are crimes of violence so that there can be no vagueness and people know what the law is,” she said. The measure passed on September 7, 2018, by a vote of 247 to 152, but died in the Senate.27

In 2018, Handel narrowly lost re-election to Democrat Lucy McBath, a gun control activist whose teenage son had been shot and killed six years earlier. McBath took 50.5 percent of the vote to Handel’s 49.5 percent.28


1Alicia Parlapiano and Rachel Shorey, “Who Financed the Georgia Sixth, the Most Expensive House Race Ever,” 20 June 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/20/us/politics/georgia-6th-most-expensive-house-election.html.

2Jonathan Martin and Richard Fausset, “Karen Handel Wins Georgia Special Election, Fending Off Upstart Democrat,” 20 June 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/20/us/politics/karen-handel-georgia-special-election.html.

3Greg Bluestein, “Republican Karen Handel: A ‘Fighter’ Returns to the Political Arena,” 11 June 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: A23. Quotation from Jill Vejnoska, “In the Bully Pulpit,” 30 September 2012, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: E1.

4“Susan G. Komen for the Cure Names Karen Handel as Senior Vice President, Public Policy,” news release, 12 April 2011, BusinessWire, https://www. businesswire.com/news/home/20110412006795/en/Susan-G.-Komen-Cure%C2%AE-Names-Karen-Handel; Bluestein, “Republican Karen Handel.”

5Bluestein, “Republican Karen Handel”; Paul Kaplan, “Chairman-elect Handel: From the White House to Fulton County,” 7 November 2003, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Vejnoska, “In the Bully Pulpit.”

6Diane R. Stepp, “Businesses Call for Jump-Start on Roadwork,” 8 February 2001, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (North Fulton Extra): n.p.; Ty Tagami, “2002 Election: 2,180 Fulton Ballots Located After Tally,” 8 November 2002, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Ty Tagami, “In Vote Count, Fulton Divided North-South,” 21 November 2002, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.

7Duane D. Stanford, “Perdue’s Picks are Diverse,” 14 December 2002, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.

8Ty Tagami, “GOP Works to Keep Top Fulton Seat,” 2 August 2003, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Paul Kaplan, “Fulton County Commission: Hopefuls’ Priorities are Similar,” 25 September 2003, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Paul Kaplan, “Tax-Weary Atlantans May Tip Fulton Race,” 25 September 2003, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Editorial, “Our Opinions: Handel Has Most Potential to Lead Fulton Commission,” 21 October 2003, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Paul Kaplan, “GOP’s Handel Wins Race for Fulton Chief,” 5 November 2003, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.

9D. L. Bennett, “Fulton Chairwoman Earns Stripes,” 16 December 2004, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Janet Frankston, “Northside Commute a Daily Ordeal,” 17 January 2005, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; David Pendered, “Next for Beltline: Fill in the Blanks,” 13 November 2005, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: E5. Quotation from D.L. Bennett, “Fulton Commission: Handel Exits Softly After 3 Tough Years,” 28 December 2006, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 6JH.

10D. L. Bennett, “New Leader, New Era for Fulton,” 18 August 2005, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p. Quotation from Colin Campbell, “Gender Tensions Aggravate Strain on Government,” 21 March 2004, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.

11Tom Baxter and Jim Galloway, “Handel Sets Sights on Seat of Power,” 25 July 2005, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Jim Galloway, “Handel Joins Statewide Race,” 28 July 2005, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.

12Jim Galloway and Carlos Campos, “Stakeholders Bring Sharp Knives, Buckner, Handel Take Of f the Gloves,” 23 October 2006, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1B; Bluestein, “Republican Karen Handel”; Carlos Campos, “Georgia 2006: Secretary of State,” 28 October 2006, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1C; Carlos Campos, “Handel Win a GOP Benchmark,” 8 November 2006, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 8D; “Results of Contested Races,” 9 November 2006, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4A.

13Quotation from Bill Torpy, “Karen Handel: A Rising Star in the Hot Seat,” 19 October 2008, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1D; Jim Galloway, “Handel Warns Against Shortening Early Voting Period,” 7 January 2009, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: n.p.; Mary Lou Pickel, “Glitch Led to Flood of Voter ID Checks,” 24 October 2008, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 7A; Ben Smith, “Election is First Test for Voter ID,” 4 February 2008, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

14James Salzer, “Handel Resigns to Run for Governor,” 23 December 2009, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Aaron Gould Sheinin, “14 File To Run for Governor,” 1 May 2010, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4B; Cynthia Tucker, “Sarah Palin’s Political Pixie Dust,” 14 July 2010, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12A; Jim Galloway, “Palin May Have a Big Impact Here,” 15 July 2010, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1B; Aaron Gould Sheinin, “Handel, Deal Headed to Runoff,” 21 July 2010, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Cameron McWhirter, Steve Visser, and James Salzer, “Rural, Metro GOP Voters Flex Muscle,” 22 July 2010, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Aaron Gould Sheinin, “Deal Rises Above the Fray,” 12 August 2010, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

15Katie Leslie, “Susan G. Komen Controversy,” 3 February 2014, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Katie Leslie, “New Details Susan G. Komen Controversy,” 8 February 2012, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

16Aaron Gould Sheinin, “Handel Says She’s Confident,” 15 May 2014, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1B; Daniel Malloy, “Perdue or Kingston to Face Nunn,” 21 May 2014, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

17Greg Bluestein, “The Scramble to Fill Price’s Seat Begins,” 30 November 2016, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

18Greg Bluestein, “Crowd Vies to Fill Price’s Seat,” 16 February 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

19Greg Bluestein, “Outside Forces Seek to Shape 6th District Race,” 10 March 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Aaron Gould Sheinin and Greg Bluestein, “Record Fundraising in 6th District,” 6 April 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Tamar Hallerman, “Where’s Money Going in History’s Most Expensive U.S. House Race?,” 14 June 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 6A.

20Greg Bluestein, “In Tom Price’s Backyard, A Deep Divide,” 26 March 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 10A; Greg Bluestein, “Polls in Georgia Special Election Point to Ossoff, Handel in Runoff,” 15 April 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 5B.

21Greg Bluestein, “All Eyes Are on Georgia for Today’s Special Election,” 18 April 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Greg Bluestein, “Hopefuls Enter Next Phase in Ga.’s 6th District Race,” 20 April 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

22Greg Bluestein, “Trump Plans to Hold Handel Fundraiser during Atlanta Trip,” 26 April 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 4A; Greg Bluestein, “Handel Embraces Trump Ahead of 6th District Vote,” 27 April 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Greg Bluestein, “Paul Ryan to Stump for Karen Handel,” 9 May 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1B; Greg Bluestein, “Health Care Takes 6th District Spotlight,” 16 May 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

23Greg Bluestein, “Handel Victorious in 6th,” 21 June 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A; Martin and Fausset, “Karen Handel Wins Georgia Special Election, Fending Off Upstart Democrat.”

24On the Education and the Workforce Committee, Handel served on the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections and the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. On the Judiciary Committee, Handel sat on the Subcommittee on Constitution and Civil Justice and the Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law. See House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Report of the Activities of the Committee on Education and the Workforce for the 115th Congress, 115th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 1123 (2019): II–IV; “Goodlatte Announces New Republican Member Subcommittee Assignments for the 115th Congress,” official website of House Judiciary Committee Republicans, press release, 12 July 2017, https://republicans-judiciary.house.gov/press-release/goodlatte-announces-new-republican-member-subcommittee-assignments-115th-congress/; Tamar Hallerman, “Handel Sworn In as Newest Ga. Representative,” 27 June 2017, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

25Congressional Record, House, 116th Cong., 1st sess. (26 June 2017): H5166.

26Standard Merger and Acquisitions Reviews Through Equal Rules Act of 2018, H.R. 5645, 115th Cong. (2018); Congressional Record, House, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 May 2018): H3851–3857, H3865–3866.

27Community Safety and Security Act of 2018, H.R. 6691, 115th Cong. (2018); “Due Process: Sessions v. Dimaya,” Harvard Law Review 131, no. 2 (9 November 2018), https://harvardlawreview.org/2018/11/sessions-v-dimaya/; Congressional Record, House, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 September 2018): H7925–7937.

28Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Party Divisions of the House of Representatives, 1789 to Present."

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

[ Top ]

Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Judiciary
[ Top ]