Even if you put politics and ideology completely aside, Karen Handel had to resign from Susan G. Komen for the Cure. It’s hard to think of the last time an employee did so much damage to such a respected brand in so little time. Before last week, Komen was one of the most successful and beloved charities in the United States. Now it has alienated both supporters and opponents of abortion rights. Even if women’s health activists eventually forgive the organization, it will be forever tainted. This is a debacle that public-relations specialists will be studying for years to come.
But while Komen will sustain long-term damage, Handel probably will be just fine. Yes, she’s lost her position as Komen’s vice president for public policy. But Handel has long had political aspirations, and she’s now a right-wing cause célèbre. When she ran for the Georgia Republican gubernatorial nomination two years ago, she was attacked for being insufficiently anti-abortion. That’s unlikely to happen again. “It's kind of hard to criticize her now," Joel McElhannon, a Georgia-based GOP strategist, told the Associated Press. “She comes out of this with some really strong bona fides with pro-life voters across the state."
If any doubt remained that Handel, a longtime abortion opponent, played a major role in Komen’s disastrous Planned Parenthood decision, it disappeared on Tuesday. “I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
The letter offers a clue about what Handel might do going forward. “While I appreciate your raising a possible severance package, I respectfully decline,” she wrote. Severance packages, of course, often come with gag rules, but Handel seems determined to keep speaking out. She’s started a blog, karenhandelkomen.com, a twitter account, @HandelKomen, both devoted to her takes on the controversy, though so far her resignation letter is the only thing she has published.
Handel has much to gain by presenting herself as a martyr to Planned Parenthood. “Handel was a rising star in Georgia GOP circles in 2010 as she sought to become the state's first female governor,” the Associated Press reported. “As secretary of state, she was the protégé of former governor Sonny Perdue, Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. And she landed the endorsement of Sarah Palin.”
Then she was derailed by abortion politics. After coming in first in the initial primary, she came under vicious attack from opponent Nathan Deal and from Georgia Right to Life during the runoff. They lambasted her for voting in favor of a grant to Planned Parenthood when she was a county commissioner, for her belief that abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, and for her support for IVF. The debate over the last issue got agonizingly personal. Handel had been open about her unsuccessful struggle to have a child. Georgia Right to Life President Dan Becker said he understood that being “barren” was painful to her, “but it should never be attempted to be addressed where a life is taken in the process.”
Reproductive politics loomed so large that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began a story on the race by saying, “Contrary to popular belief, Karen Handel and Nathan Deal actually have discussed more than just abortion in their runoff campaign for the GOP nomination for governor.” Handel insisted that she was anti-abortion and anti–Planned Parenthood, but it wasn’t enough. She lost the runoff by 2,519 votes.
Next time she runs for office, she’ll be in a far better position. On Tuesday afternoon, she was on Fox News denouncing Planned Parenthood’s “vicious attacks and coercion.” For an ambitious Southern Republican, there are few messages more winning.