SMYRNA, Ga. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence says suburban Atlanta Republicans must elect Karen Handel to Congress to help President Donald Trump or risk a loss that could help hand House control back to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
"I don't see this race so much as a choice between Karen Handel and her opponent," Pence told a gathering of Republican donors who paid $1,500 per person to hear his pitch.
"Karen Handel will partner with President Donald Trump to make America safe and prosperous again," while Jon Ossoff represents a throwback to Pelosi's first tenure as House speaker, Pence said.
Handel and Ossoff meet in a June 20 runoff in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, which covers the northern suburbs of Atlanta but has become a proxy for the national political dynamic.
Ossoff, a 30-year-old making his first bid for public office, has become a face of the anti-Trump movement nationally on his way to a record-setting $23 million fundraising haul, most of it from well beyond Georgia. Handel, a 55-year-old former secretary of state, has struggled to keep pace, instead depending on millions of dollars in ads from national Republican groups.
The 6th District has been held by a Republican since 1979, but Trump isn't particularly popular here. He barely topped Democrat Hillary Clinton in November and still fell short of a majority. Previous GOP nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain got more than 60 percent of the vote.
Democrats have for months identified Ossoff as their best shot to pick up a GOP seat ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans already have defended House seats in special elections this spring in Montana and Kansas.
Democrats need to flip 24 seats between now and November to reclaim a majority.
Handel said Friday that the Pence event would push her fundraising total beyond $5 million, still less than a quarter of what Ossoff has collected — and a sum that already includes two earlier fundraisers headlined by Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Handel said the Pence event, which also included a $10,000 host opportunity to have the donor's picture taken with the vice president, raised about $250,000.
The vice president's visit comes a day after former FBI chief James Comey testified on Capitol Hill that he believes Trump fired him to interfere with his investigation of Russia's ties to the Trump campaign.
Comey also accused the White House of telling "lies, plain and simple" about the reasons for his firing.
Pence has not commented publicly since Comey's testimony, and he didn't mention Comey during the fundraising luncheon or during an earlier appearance at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, outside Atlanta.
Earlier this week, Pence canceled a previously scheduled appearance on PBS' "NewsHour." The vice president's office said the cancellation was only because he was running late during a trip to Houston, and that he would reschedule.
Nonetheless, the administration's cycle of controversy has repeatedly forced Pence into finding ways to defend the president.
His strongest defense Friday: "No matter what the media may be focused on ... President Donald Trump will not ever stop fighting for the issues that matter most to the people of Georgia and the people of the United States of America."
And when Pence first mentioned the president, the applause was noticeably more restrained than when Pence had taken the stage moments earlier.
Handel introduced Pence, praising him as a "great man." She did not mention Trump.
The vice president's appearance with Handel is a preview of his role in the 2018 midterm elections, when he will be a top surrogate for Republican candidates.
Pence remains popular with the Republican base, and he's got relationships across the party as a former Indiana governor and longtime congressman. He also has lower negative ratings among all Americans than Trump, whose job approval ratings have dipped below 40 percent.
Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .