The first of two scheduled debates between the candidates in Georgia’s sixth congressional district special-election runoff was generally rated a draw, and probably changed few minds among the highly polarized voters of this north Atlanta suburban district. But its afterlife could be a problem for Republican Karen Handel, since she committed a completely unnecessary gaffe, expressing opposition to “a livable wage.”
She was probably trying to say “living wage,” the progressive framing (used by Democrat Jon Ossoff just before she spoke) of a significantly higher minimum wage than the $7.25 that prevails nationally today. She could have and should have said that a $15 per hour minimum wage, the most commonly advanced Democratic proposal, was too high for a place like Atlanta with its relatively low cost of living (as compared to other big cities, at least). That would have forced Ossoff to specify what he meant by a “living wage,” and made the amount, not the concept, the focus. But she didn’t do that, which is why it was an unforced error.
You can be sure Handel’s gaffe will be highlighted immediately in Team Ossoff’s ads, and will likely come up again in Thursday’s second (and at present, final) televised debate. Some pro-Ossoff commentators think it was a race-deciding moment.
I doubt that is the case, unless Handel fails to clarify her remarks or compounds them. For a debate “moment” to matter a lot, there have to be a lot of undecided voters watching. The only three public polls taken since the special election’s first round, last month, show a small and declining undecided vote. The latest poll, from Landmark and WSB-TV (sponsors of the first debate) showed only 3 percent of likely voters undecided.
While Handel didn’t have to take a hard line on a “livable wage,” her views are not out of the mainstream for Republicans in a place like Georgia, where opposition to any minimum wage is common. The Republican who held the district for a dozen years before becoming HHS secretary, Tom Price, voted against the increase that raised the minimum wage to where it is today.
So any celebration among Ossoff supporters about Handel’s gaffe is highly premature. He’ll need more than that to unpin enough Republican voters from her column to edge past her on June 20. But Handel should definitely do some serious debate prep between now and Thursday night.