Karen Handel, the former Susan G. Komen for the Cure executive at the center of last year’s public clash with Planned Parenthood, announced plans Friday to run for an open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
The announcement, hours before the state GOP convention, will likely shake up an already crowded contest among Republicans vying for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is retiring next year. Three of Georgia’s Republican congressmen — Paul Broun of Athens, Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Jack Kingston of Savannah — have announced plans to run.
“I’m running for U.S. Senate because I want to make sure that the next young person who ends up on his or her own at 17 will have the opportunity to prosper and achieve,” Handel, 51, said in a statement. “But that won’t happen unless we make some big changes in Washington.”
Handel, a former secretary of state, is expected to tap quickly into her statewide network of supporters and start raising money to compete with the sizeable campaign cash already secured by Kingston and Gingrey. Handel has also been traveling the country in recent months, talking with various Right to Life groups about her time with Komen and the public outcry over the breast cancer charity’s decision to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
Komen quickly reversed course amid intense public criticism, and Handel resigned earning the support of conservatives. She also wrote a book about her experiences called “Planned Bullyhood,” in which she criticized both sides for the way they handled the situation.
In the book, Handel wrote that Komen had been considering for more than a decade whether to end Planned Parenthood funding for breast-cancer education and screening, wanting the charity out of the abortion debate after facing pressure from anti-abortion groups. When Handel joined the organization as vice president of public policy in 2011, she said she was tasked with identifying ways to make the split.
“It was not our issue. It had become a major distraction, sucking up manpower and putting a damper on fundraising,” wrote Handel, who was at the center of the firestorm given her record opposing abortion during her campaigns in Georgia.
The 2010 governor’s race was bruising as Handel criticized what she labeled “a good-old-boys club” at the state Capitol, calling for ethics reform with a speech titled “Sex, lies and lobbyists” that distanced herself from party leaders. While she received the most votes in the primary, it was not enough to avoid a runoff with Nathan Deal, who eventually beat her and won the general election.
During the race, she did not gain the support of the Georgia Right to Life group. While Handel opposes abortion, she has said she supports exceptions for rape and incest. She also disagreed with the group’s president over the issue of in-vitro fertilization. Handel has spoken publicly about her struggle to have children and wrote in her book that she and her husband had considered in-vitro but decided against it on the advice of their physician.
In the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat, some of the very same issues could resurface. Handel will likely seek to portray herself as someone outside of Washington politics willing to tackle tough issues. Meanwhile, Kingston has been emphasizing his conservative credentials and fiscal stewardship as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Gingrey and Broun are also conservatives looking to connect with popular grassroots organizations around the state.
It appears Handel will not have the benefit of support from former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a mentor of hers over the years. Handel briefly served as Perdue’s deputy chief of staff before leaving the administration to run for chairman of the Fulton County Commission, a race she won. This time, Perdue has announced support for his cousin, David Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General and Reebok and a Republican who has announced he’s formed an exploratory bid for the U.S. Senate race.
In addition to Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, an executive with the Atlanta-based company that recently bought the New York Stock Exchange and a co-owner of Atlanta’s professional women’s basketball team, has also been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta has ruled out a bid, with the focus turning to whether Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn and the CEO of the volunteer organization Points of Light, plans to run.