The calendar tells us there are still several months remaining in 2013, but Karen Handel is acting as if 2014 were already here and we were in the middle of a full-bore Senate race. Handel, one of the Republican contenders for the Senate seat Saxby Chambliss is vacating, went on the offensive last week against three of the male candidates opposing her in the GOP primary. She launched a website under the mocking title of “Only in Washington” and said she would use the online venue to publicize 42 examples of the “ridiculous things” that Jack Kingston, Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun have been part of during their careers in the U.S. House.
“We are where we are in this country not just because of the Democrats, but also because of Republicans not having the will and the resolve and the courage to make hard decisions that needed to be made,” Handel contends.
Some of the things she is criticizing typically occur when you have a federal government that spends more than $3.5 trillion a year: the congressional barber shop that runs a deficit of $340,000 or the expenditure of $744,000 to build a soccer field for the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
These items are chump change that Kingston, Gingrey and Broun could not have eliminated anyway, and even if they had, it would have made no real difference in solving the federal government’s fiscal woes.
Handel is on firmer ground when she criticizes the congressional trio for not doing more to rein in the national debt, which was at the $4 trillion level when Kingston first entered Congress 20 years ago and is now approaching $17 trillion.
“Only in Washington could that happen and absolutely nothing be done about it,” Handel says.
Back in 2001 when Bill Clinton was turning over the White House to George W. Bush, the federal government was actually running a modest budget surplus and was able to pay down at least a small portion of the national debt. That surplus disappeared quickly, and the national debt began climbing again largely because of two major initiatives undertaken by Bush and a willing congressional majority: tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.
If Handel wants to criticize her opponents for being part of a Congress that would enact such deficit-ballooning measures, she is definitely on the right track. It is noteworthy that Handel is already going negative on her opponents in a primary campaign that has a long way to go: it’s nearly 10 months before election day.
She used the same approach in 2010 when she lambasted the “good ol’ boys” network that runs state politics. One of the defining moments of the 2010 race occurred when Handel taunted Deal to put on “his big-boy pants” and get to work. That cutting remark backfired, making Handel appear a little too mean-spirited to many undecided voters. After leading in the first round of Republican primary voting, she lost a close runoff to Deal.
Why would Handel employ such a risky campaign strategy again? The recent disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission provide the answer. As of June 30, Handel had raised just over $150,000 for her campaign bank account. By contrast, Gingrey had $2.56 million in available cash, Kingston had $2.35 million and even Broun, never an overly successful solicitor of contributions, had accumulated $401,000.
When you face that kind of disadvantage, you have to use the slash-and-burn techniques that will attract free media coverage in a race where the opposition can swamp you with attack ads.
Handel evidently believes that what failed her in 2010 could work in 2014. Maybe this time, she’ll be right.