A Republican candidate in a nationally watched Georgia congressional race says she doesn't support a "livable wage."
That was the way Karen Handel explained her opposition to a minimum-wage increase during a debate Tuesday night with Jon Ossoff, a Democratic upstart who has become a face of the opposition movement to President Donald Trump and is aiming for an upset that would rock Washington ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, declined Wednesday to walk back her remarks.
She said in a statement: "The private sector creates good paying jobs when we have a robust economy with lower taxes and less regulation."
During the debate, Handel was repeating the phrasing Ossoff had just used to explain his limited support for mandate wage increases that he said would yield a "livable wage," and her position follows standard Republican orthodoxy on Capitol Hill.
But her choice of words — "I do not support a livable wage" — could become fodder against her before the June 20 special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District. And it certainly could become grist as Democrats nationally continue their efforts to frame Trump and Republicans as foes of the working class.
Federal minimum wage is $7.25, though 29 states and many cities have higher minimums. Georgia is not among them. There is a national labor movement to increase the federal mark to $15 an hour, and many Democrats in Congress advocate at least a $10.10 hourly wage.
Ossoff spokeswoman Sacha Haworth said Wednesday the campaign will use Handel's remarks in "targeted messaging," though they did not specific whether that means direct mail, online advertising or other means. The approach suggests Ossoff will not feature the comment in his extensive television advertising campaign that reaches the broadest swath of voters in the affluent, well-educated district.
National Democrats said Wednesday they almost certainly will take the same approach.
Handel and Ossoff are embroiled in an expensive special election that has become a proxy for national political dynamics. The affluent suburban Atlanta district has elected a Republican since 1978, but Trump barely won here in November, giving Ossoff an opening if he can woo enough independents and even moderate Republicans.
Democrats needs to flip 24 Republican seats by next November to reclaim a House majority, and the national party has identified the Georgia seat as the best shot for a pickup in a round of special elections this spring. Republicans already have held on to open seats in Kansas and Montana.
Public opinion polls have for years showed a majority of American adults back a higher federal minimum wage. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington last year all approved ballot measures to raise the state minimum pay. But it's less clear whether the issue can be a deciding factor between two candidates.
The Georgia district's makeup — the median household income is about 60 percent higher than the national mark — explains why Ossoff and other Democrats have not immediately pounced on Handel's statement about wages, even as liberal commentators and activists have reacted across social media and online.
Handel, answering a panelist's question after Ossoff, called the matter a "fundamental difference" between the two candidates. After stating her opposition to a "livable wage," she echoed standard Republican theory about government avoiding mandates on businesses, arguing that freeing employers to make decisions enables them "to do what they do best ... create jobs." That, she said, results in higher wages.
A federally imposed hike, she said, would "dramatically hurt" businesses.
Ossoff, who frames himself as a centrist despite his support from the grassroots left nationally, answered the question cautiously himself.
He said he supports increases "indexed to cost-of-living," meaning different communities could set different wages. He specifically cited higher costs in urban areas. And he said he advocates step raises over time, so that businesses could absorb cost increases.
That position largely reflects what Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in 2016, in contrast to her primary rival and liberal hero Bernie Sanders, who backs the $15 per hour standard.
Ossoff and Handel have tried for weeks to downplay the national significance of their contest, insisting the contest is about Georgia voters. But that facade crumbled throughout the one-hour debate.
Handel repeatedly cast Ossoff as a tool of "the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party," and mentioned House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, about a dozen times.
"Your values are from 3,000 miles away in San Francisco," Handel told Ossoff.
Ossoff countered by repeatedly declaring he'll "work with anyone in Washington" as "an independent voice."
He noted Handel echoes Trump on most issues, suggesting she's the "rubber stamp" candidate.
The reality is that whoever wins will have benefited from outside help. Ossoff has raised money alongside Pelosi. Handel has raised money with Trump.