Five candidates in the Republican primary in the 6th Congressional District squared off in a May 4 virtual debate, where the themes were responses to the pandemic and attacking frontrunner Karen Handel.

The Republicans are vying on the June 9 ballot for the right to challenge Democratic incumbent Lucy McBath in the district, which includes parts of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. Handel once held the seat, but lost it to McBath in a 2018 upset. The other Republicans in the race are Mykel Barthelemy, Blake Harbin, Joe Profit and Paulette Smith.

A screenshot from the 6th Congressional District Republican primary debate shows, clockwise from top, hosts Russ Spencer of FOX5 Atlanta and Tamar Hallerman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and candidates Karen Handel, Paulette Smith, Blake Harbin, Mykel Barthelemy and Joe Profit.

The debate was held by the Atlanta Press Club and Georgia Public Broadcasting, with FOX5 Atlanta anchor Russ Spencer as host and Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Tamar Hallerman asking questions. With candidates signing in from home, the debate had such noise disruptions as a slamming door and, for Harbin, a frequently frozen feed. The full video can be viewed on YouTube here.

Handel is the most widely recognized candidate, having held the office before as well as serving as Georgia secretary of state and Fulton County Commission chair. In 2017, she won the 6th District seat in a close race against Jon Ossoff — now a U.S. Senate candidate — where Republicans strongly criticized his residency outside the district. Questioned by Hallerman, Barthelemy and Smith acknowledged that they also do not live within the district they seek to represent.

On the electability issue, Handel said, “The big difference is that I’m going to win.” But the other candidates were not so sure she could survive a rematch with McBath.

“Why did you lose and how can voters trust you with their vote and their money this time?” asked Barthelemy of Handel in a question period. Handel blamed “outside money” in the 2018 race and said that now, “I’m winning all the polls.”

“You can’t beat McBath,” said Profit to Handel, criticizing her loss to “an airline stewardess with no business experience.” Handel not only disagreed, but found herself defending McBath, who long worked as a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. “…I don’t appreciate your denigrating airline employees. That’s just completely uncalled for,” she said.

Smith alleged that, during her short time in Congress, Handel “was totally against everything President Trump was for,” which Handel disputed.

Harbin alleged that Handel pays little attention to small business owners in the district and attributed her electoral wins to luck. “You could laugh and say a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then,” he said.

Handel noted she has served as CEO of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and added in a chiding tone, “And Blake, I know you didn’t just call me a squirrel.”

As for why voters should choose them instead, the other candidates had varying policies and personas.

Barthelemy, a minister who owns a commercial banking business, presents herself as the most closely aligned with the politics of the president, whom she wrote about in a self-published book called “Trump Is Not a Racist. Here’s Why.” She said Trump is the greatest president “for our generation” and, until the pandemic, was overseeing the “best economy ever.”

Harbin presents himself as most in touch with the people. In 2007, he lost his livelihood in the market crash and was in an accident whose injuries cause him to use a wheelchair. In rebuilding the pandemic world, he said, “I can definitely relate to the people of the 6th District because I’ve been there.” In addition, he said, McBath could not play the “victim card” against him.

Profit, a former Atlanta Falcons football player, presents himself as another business-minded choice, having owned a restaurant franchise and authored children’s books. However, Hallerman put him on the defensive by asking about his multiple bankruptcies and owning a business that was once raided by the FBI. Profit said that “our president has filed bankruptcy,” as has Delta, and said the FBI raid was based on “allegations made by my enemies.”

Smith cited her background as a cosmetologist and singer as putting her in touch with the people. “As a singer, you’re able to reach your crowd, to let them feel your heart beat,” she said. And as a “master cosmetologist,” she said. “that means I know the ‘ology’ of things and how it works.”

Pandemic reactions

The candidates indicated they were viewing the COVID-19 disease with varying degrees of seriousness, though getting an apples-to-apples comparison was difficult because Spencer and Hallerman did not let all of the candidates answer each pandemic-related question.

One question that did go to all of the candidates was the increasing politicized issue of wearing face masks in public, which health officials say decreases the COVID-19 transmission risk for both the wearer and, especially, those around them. Handel and Profit were the only candidates who say they regularly wear face masks in public.

“I think we should all be vigilant with this virus,” said Handel, adding that sheltering in place helped save lives and that masks do also by protecting people from a disease that can be spread when there are no symptoms.

Profit did not directly speak about mask-wearing, but on a related question about Trump’s expressed desire to soon return to crowded political rallies, he said, “…I believe we should be guided by our health officials and professionals with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

Barthelemy said she does not wear a mask because it “makes me feel claustrophobic” and is a “thin line between civil liberties and the Constitution,” though mask-wearing is not legally required. She also cited a common rumor that mask-wearing is unhealthy due to carbon dioxide build-up, a conclusion for which there appears to be no medical evidence, though some studies have found some healthcare workers have headaches after prolonged mask-wearing for unclear reasons.

Smith said the CDC could learn from “holistic doctors.” She displayed a bracelet that she indicated she believes protects her from “5G,” an apparent reference to a conspiracy theory that radiation from wireless devices causes cancer or COVID-19.

In terms of federal response, Harbin said he would have fought for the Paycheck Protection Program, which gives loans to impacted businesses, to have more guidelines that directed the money to small businesses and not large corporations. Handel said she believes the individual states should take the lead on COVID-19 testing systems, while the federal government focuses on developing treatments and vaccines.

Handel said the pandemic also is a chance for health system reform. She said that Republicans need to stop Democrats from “taking away our healthcare” and work on such issues as better support for community health centers, Medicaid block grants and a “reboot” of the insurance exchange.

All of the candidates said they believe elected officials should not trade individual stocks while in office. That issue arose in recent allegations that Georgia’s U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, benefited from stock trades based on prior knowledge of the coming pandemic, which both have denied.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.