The race for the 6th Congressional District seat turned nasty in an Oct. 13 virtual debate, with the candidates blasting each other as liars, extremists and rubber stamps for their party leaders.

Democratic incumbent Lucy McBath is facing a challenge from Republican Karen Handel on the Nov. 3 ballot. It’s a rematch of the 2018 election where McBath booted Handel out of the office in a narrow victory as part of a Democratic “blue wave.” The district — which includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs — is now politically purple, leading the candidates to bash each other’s party leaders in clashes over such issues as healthcare and the U.S. Supreme Court nomination process.

A screenshot from the 6th Congressional District debate shows, clockwise from top: moderator Patricia Murphy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; incumbent candidate Lucy McBath; Stanley Dunlap of the Georgia Recorder; candidate Karen Handel; and Jorge Estevez of WSB-TV.

A particularly acidic exchange came when McBath accused Handel of voting in Congress to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is now a crucial part of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Handel said that was “absolutely not true” and that she had voted to increase CDC funding.

“So Lucy, I know you want to lie about my record in the interest of being able to hide your own 97% vote record with [Democratic U.S. House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi,” Handel said.

McBath countered that Handel has touted her own voting record of supporting President Donald Trump 98% of the time. “You have failed over and over again. You have failed this district,” McBath said. “And you have continued to lie and discredit the good people in this district, and that is the reason why they voted you out.”

The debate was co-sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Public Broadcasting. A recording can be viewed on the press club’s Facebook page here. Patricia Murphy, a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, served as moderator, with questions asked by Georgia Recorder reporter Stanley Dunlap and WSB-TV anchor Jorge Estevez.

Throughout the debate, McBath presented herself as a defender of abortion rights and Affordable Care Act insurance protections, while suggesting Handel would help to undo them. Despite making many criticisms of Handel and Republicans, she positioned herself as a moderate choice, saying: “There’s a lot of negativity and partisanship in America right now and that’s exactly what I’m running against.”

Handel blasted McBath as a “one-issue activist” — an apparent reference to her gun-control advocacy after her son’s infamous murder — otherwise beholden to Democratic Party leadership who would support “illegal immigrants,” “defunding the police” and “taking away local zoning controls.” Suggesting that McBath cannot be trusted, Handel said, “It’s not about what Lucy McBath says. It’s about what she does.”

Healthcare

On healthcare, McBath noted that she has survived breast cancer and blasted Handel as a threat to the ACA and other protections. “My opponent’s record on healthcare is absolutely dismal,” she said, claiming Handel does not support protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions and that she harmed Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide cancer screenings.

Handel said McBath is “blatantly lying about my record.” Handel says she supports stand-alone legislation to protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. She also supports a proposal to turn Medicaid into a state-operated block grant program, an idea the Trump administration has advocated.

Handel speaks during the Oct. 13 debate.

Pandemic response

Neither candidate responded directly when asked to rate the responses of Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to the pandemic.

Both candidates said they support another federal economic stimulus package following the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Handel said Democrats are “playing political games” that are delaying it, and that it should contain more flexibility in how its funds can be spent. She also claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would raise taxes if elected and that “we need to keep taxes low.”

McBath highlighted her advocacy for legislation to better fund the CDC that, she said, was incorporated into the CARES Act.

‘Packing the court’

The candidates differed on Trump’s controversial nomination of federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court late in his term. Much of the debate centered on the meaning of the pejorative political term “packing the court.” Many Republicans use it to criticize a Democratic idea of adding seats to the court to neutralize a conservative majority; many Democrats use it to refer to Republican strategies to ensure conservative majorities on the Supreme Court and other courts.

Handel said there is nothing wrong with Trump nominating a Supreme Court justice in the midst of re-election campaign he might lose, noting the presidency has a four-year term, not three-and-a-half years. She said the real concern should be whether McBath supports “packing the court. I oppose it.”

McBath did not directly address the idea of court membership expansion, instead saying that Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell “are the only ones trying to pack the court.” She claimed that Barrett’s appointment would allow the court to “dismantle the Affordable Care Act” and take away abortion rights.

U.S. Rep. McBath speaks during the debate.

Abortion

Abortion rights are a clear area of difference between the candidates, with Handel having a long history of anti-abortion advocacy. McBath made a claim that Handel was secretive about such advocacy. In an apparent reference to campaign finance disclosure statements, McBath said that Handel reported receiving income from the Georgia Life Alliance. That anti-abortion group was a supporter of the so-called heartbeat bill that was voided this year as unconstitutional by a federal judge following nationwide political controversy. McBath claimed that Handel listed the group as “GLA” so that voters would not recognize it, “to hide your role with such a radical group.”

“Oh, that is ridiculous, Lucy McBath,” Handel chided in response, saying that the group goes by those initials. “It’s no secret that I’m pro-life,” she said, adding that she worked on “business strategy” for the group.

Changing tack, McBath said that Handel is in fact a notorious supporter of laws that could result in jailing or execution of women who have abortions. “Voters cannot trust you to stand up for a woman’s right to choose, Ms. Handel,” she said.

Handel said that McBath is the one with “extreme views” on abortion. She said McBath is among those who do not support legislation that would require medical care for infants delivered during an abortion attempt. Handel claimed the proposal is moderate and that opposition to it is “disgraceful” and “inhumane.”

Voting rights

During a discussion about election security, McBath attacked Handel’s record of service as Georgia secretary of state in 2007 to 2010. “My opponent, Karen Handel, has a long history of obstructing people’s ability to be able to vote,” said McBath, claiming that as secretary of state, Handel “was found by the Justice Department to have actually violated the Voting Rights Act.”

“With respect, Lucy McBath has no idea what she’s talking about,” responded Handel, noting that she oversaw the state’s participation in the 2008 presidential election, which was won by Democrat Barack Obama.

McBath apparently was referring to a 2009 written decision from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which indeed said that two voter-verification procedures instituted by Handel’s office were implemented without a federal review required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and which resulted in errors that “disproportionately” affected minority voters.

The situation was described in news reports at the time, and a copy of the written decision remains posted on the website of the ACLU, one of the groups that filed a federal complaint. The new procedures cross-checked voter registration files with driver’s license and Social Security files. Voters who appeared not to be a citizen, or whose information did not exactly match, were flagged for further review before they could vote.

The written opinion, by acting assistant U.S. attorney general Loretta King on half of the U.S. Attorney General’s office, said “the state implemented these changes in violation of Section 5” of the Voting Rights Act. The results showed that “thousands” of eligible voters were improperly flagged, the opinion said. “The impact of these errors falls disproportionately on minority voters,” in a way that was “statistically significant,” the opinion said.

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