Resignation From Komen Could Burnish Politician

Published February 7, 2012 9:45PM (EST)

ATLANTA (AP) — Karen Handel has had two major run-ins involving Planned Parenthood. One helped crush her political career; the other has the potential to remake it.

Handel ran for the Republican nomination for governor of Georgia on an anti-abortion platform in 2010 but lost after her chief GOP rival accused her of being soft on the issue, in part because she voted years earlier to give Planned Parenthood federal funding.

On Tuesday, she resigned as policy chief at Susan G. Komen for the Cure after the breast-cancer charity abruptly dropped plans to cut off funding to Parent Parenthood. Handel had firmly backed the move to sever ties to Planned Parenthood, the nation's biggest abortion provider.

Her resignation could burnish her anti-abortion credentials with conservative activists should she again seek elective office.

"It's kind of hard to criticize her now," said Joel McElhannon, a Georgia-based GOP strategist. "She comes out of this with some really strong bona fides with pro-life voters across the state."

Well before this week's furor, Handel had a nasty split with Georgia's leading anti-abortion group, especially after its leader criticized her last year for supporting in-vitro fertilization and called her "barren." The 49-year-old Handel and her husband sought fertility treatment after trying unsuccessfully for years to have children.

In her resignation letter, Handel denied the short-lived decision to withdraw funding for Planned Parenthood was somehow political.

"Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone's political beliefs or ideology," she said. "Rather, both were based on Komen's mission and how to better serve women, as well as a realization of the need to distance Komen from controversy."

Asked in an interview Tuesday about her political aspirations, she hedged, saying: "I've learned a long time ago, don't try to predict the future." She refused to comment on whether her resignation would help her standing with anti-abortion groups.

Still, the furor could have political ramifications in conservative Georgia.

Handel was a rising star in Georgia GOP circles in 2010 as she sought to become the state's first female governor. As secretary of state, she was the protégé of Gov. Sonny Perdue, Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. And she landed the endorsement of Sarah Palin.

But Handel found herself facing questions about whether her opposition to abortion was strong enough. Handel wants to ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.

Her top opponent in the fiercely contested primary, former Rep. Nathan Deal, ran ads criticizing Handel because in 2005, while she was a county commissioner in metro Atlanta, she voted to give more than $400,000 in federal grant money to a Planned Parenthood chapter. The group said it used the funds for things like cervical cancer screenings, but Deal and others said the money simply freed up other dollars to be spent on abortion.

She failed to win the coveted endorsement of Georgia Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.

The feud became deeply personal last June when the group's president, Dan Becker, made an issue out of Handel's inability to have children. Handel fired back that Becker and another top official at the group should resign.

On Tuesday, Becker called Handel's move at Komen "commendable."

Will her resignation rehabilitate Handel among those voters who hold sway in Republican primaries?

"I think it does help," said Sadie Fields, former head of the Georgia Christian Coalition, which worked to help Deal win the votes of evangelicals in 2010. "From what I have seen, it appears that she acted on principle."

Exit polling from the 2008 presidential primary in Georgia found six out of 10 GOP primary voters were evangelicals or born-again Christians. For those religious voters, issues like abortion are crucial.

"Karen Handel is good, strong conservative Republican, and it's a shame that she got tagged with being insufficiently conservative," said Whit Ayers, a pollster who worked for her in the primary. "I think what you see today is that is not true."

Handel won a seat on the Fulton County Commission in 2003. In 2006, she was elected Georgia's first Republican secretary of state.

She said that she fled her home in Maryland at age 17 after her alcoholic mother held a shotgun to her head. With only a few night college courses under her belt, Handel took a job as a typist at AARP and later became an administrative assistant to Hallmark's vice president for government affairs.

Handel eventually became deputy chief of staff to Marilyn Quayle, Vice President Dan Quayle's wife.

During her run for governor, Handel said her life might have turned out differently if she had been able to have children.

"What I wanted more than anything else was to be a mother, and if Steve and I had had the three kids that we had wanted, I would not be doing this," she said in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press. "I would be home raising babies."

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------