ATLANTA — Karen Handel, the former Susan G. Komen for the Cure executive at the center of last year’s public clash with Planned Parenthood, said Friday that she will 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.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Handel, 51, immediately sought to distinguish herself from the rest of the field and called herself “a fresh voice.”
“What we need is less Washington in Washington,” Handel said. “Someone who is going to be tough and not kick the can down the road.”
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.
She dismissed concerns that Kingston and Gingrey have a financial advantage.
“I will have the money I need,” she said. “It may not be the most, but I haven’t always had the most and I’ve done well.”
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 her 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 won the general election.
During the race, she did not gain the support of the Georgia Right to Life group, which notes that she supports abortion 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.
Melanie Crozier, who directs Georgia Right to Life’s political action committee, made clear Friday that Handel hasn’t settled the issue. “GRTL would welcome the opportunity to consider endorsing Mrs. Handel if she commits to protecting all innocent human life at every stage of development,” Crozier said in a statement
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 is exploring a bid for the U.S. Senate race.
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.
Democrats are still looking for a candidate, but they celebrated Handel’s entry into the race. “The divisive Republican primary appears to get more volatile by the day and is certain to produce a nominee that is too extreme for mainstream Georgians,” said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Conservative Democratic Congressman John Barrow of Augusta has ruled out a bid, instead aiming for another term in a district Republicans drew with his ouster in mind. Democrats’ focus has now shifted to Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn and CEO of the non-profit volunteer organization Points of Light. Nunn is expected to announce her decision in the coming weeks.