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INSIDE POLITICS

Handel Thanks Trump for Georgia House Win; Ossoff Concedes: "Beginning of Something Much Bigger"; Handel Wins in Georgia After Linking Ossoff to Pelosi; Spicer Unsure if Trump Thinks Russia Meddled. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired June 21, 2017 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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[12:30:19] KAREN HANDEL (R), GEORGIA CONGRESSWOMAN-ELECT: Tonight, I stand before you, extraordinarily humbled and honored at the tremendous privilege and high responsibility that you and the people across the sixth district have given to me to represent you in the United States House of Representatives. And a special thanks to the president of the United States of America.

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JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. That's soon to be Congresswoman Karen Handel celebrating her big win last night in Georgia's sixth congressional district. Let's take a look at how the vote broke down.

This is the entire district in the Atlanta suburbs, 52-48 the result in the end. Democrats had such high hopes, spent tens of millions of dollars in this district. Let's break it down little differently by counties as you pull the district out.

I'm going to draw a line to show you, the district runs like this. You have Dekalb County, Cobb County, Fulton County in the middle, it shows votes down here, they report votes by county. But this is where the district is and here's why Karen Handel won last night. For starters, Jon Ossoff, the Democrat did about what he needed to do in the most Democratic part of the district, he would have liked to have been at 60 or above in Dekalb but that's a pretty showing here in the Democratic part of the district. But, he fell short of what he needed over here in Cobb County.

Republicans turning out to support their Republican candidate. Remember, this district has been in Republican hands since back to the Jimmy Carter administration. The biggest chunk of voters here in the northern part of Fulton County and there Jon Ossoff simply failed to meet the test he needed. Karen Handel getting 53 percent of the vote in this part of Fulton County. That's what help her put over the finish line plus the reliable Republican vote here.

Again, Democrats had high hopes of sending President Trump a message, instead Karen Handel will soon join the Republicans in the House.

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HANDEL: Tonight, let's celebrate and tomorrow the real work will begin. The hard work of governing and doing that in a civil, responsible way that is in the best interests of every Georgian, every sixth district citizen, and every citizen of the United States of America.

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KING: Now it's always wrong to read too much into one election, especially one off-year special election. Still, last night was a big deal for a number of reasons. For starters, a president with lousy poll numbers, no significant legislative win so far, and a giant investigative cloud over his White House has a very legitimate reason to celebrate today.

Fewer Republican incumbents are now likely to retire. Believing the 2018 climate will be tough but not hopeless. The GOP believes Karen Handel's campaign is now a good blueprint for that still tough midterm road ahead and Democrats, now 0 for four in 2017 special elections for Republican House seats. It would be a great understatement to say there's a pretty fierce internal debate in the Democratic ranks over the best path forward.

Let's start the conversation on the Republican side of this. The president tweeting repeatedly, and for good reason, that Democrats, at least the national Democrats tried to make this a referendum on the president in a district he did not -- he won but just barely back in 2016. This is a win for the president, right, without a doubt?

ABBY PHILIP, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think so. I mean, I think that he probably -- he didn't set foot down there in part because I think it was very unclear whether he would be an asset or a drag. But I think that if Democrats were looking to hurt him politically by picking off one of these seats, they haven't been able to do that at all, even in a place where maybe he's not really that popular. And so I think he actually both has bolstered his support in the House where he still really needs it. And he has an argument that they just haven't figured out how to beat me yet and I think that's pretty much true.

KING: You're just back for the district, thank you for flying back and getting here in time for the program. Republicans think if you look at Karen Handel's campaign, don't run from the president, but don't hug him. Talk about local issues, talk about your experience.

Interesting after 2016 where we thought outsiders were in if you will, Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic primary, Donald trump sweeps all those Republicans. Karen Handel said, you know me, I held office, I cut deals, she ran as a politician, and Jon Ossoff was the outsider. Republicans think if you take that blueprint for troubled Republican incumbents and for other experienced Republican challenges running (inaudible), that's a pretty good blueprint, right?

[12:35:08] JONATHAN MARTIN, THE NEW YORK TIMES: They do and it's not totally different John from what we saw last year when people and the GOP were so concerned about the Trump drag. But the argument that was constantly made last fall by a lot of operatives in Washington was look, people in these districts who know their congressmen are not going to confuse, say, Barbara Comstock here across the river, with Donald Trump. And similarly, if you're a Georgia resident, even if you don't have politics for a while, you know Karen Handel a little bit.

She was a (inaudible) office holder, she was the county executive in the largest county in the state and the crucial county in this district, Fulton County, she's not going to be confused with Donald Trump. The lesson to me from this race is that conventional GOP candidates can still win if they have a brand that's separate from Trump. And that there's still a large group of people in America, who guess what, they don't like their taxes being increased, they're basically conservatives. They don't like Donald Trump either but they're going to still vote for the GOP down ballot.

MICHAEL WARREN, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think Donald Trump did have some kind of drag here. I think we could probably assume if this was an open seat in a general election, it would be probably a plus 10, Republican and -- Karen Handel ends up winning, plus four. Enthusiasm does counts. But I really feel Jonathan that this is -- looks more like a regular Republican seat. I think Republicans within Washington would certainly like for Donald Trump to think that he had a big part in this victory, but I think more of the credit goes to House Republicans.

They know how to win House races. You know, you have the Paul Ryan Super PAC, others, you know, playing in this race. They understood the district very well. They did sort of the right things to get her across the line there and actually outperform expectations.

KING: I think that's a very important point because, again, out of 2008 and 2012, everyone was talking about how the Democrats mastered the new digital age, the high tech age of politics. The Trump campaign, Republicans in 2016 got back in the game and in this particular race, on the mechanics of it. You can talk -- we'll talk about the messaging of when we get to the Democratic Party. But on the mechanics, identifying your voters, turning them out, knowing who was going to make the difference here, the Republicans did a fantastic job.

WARREN: They're doing it for seven, eight years.

MARGARET TALEV, BLOOMBERG POLITICS: It's a good blueprint for a district that has this sort of double digits gap that (inaudible) traditionally did. It may not work as well in a district that's closer, if you can find the districts that are closer.

KING: Right, 22-23, carried by Hillary Clinton representative by Republican congressmen. So that's going to be the first big battleground next year.

TALEV: It's also clear that Democratic voters are sometimes different than Republican voters. And if Donald Trump were a Democrat, running in a heavily Democratic district, and he had his favor ability numbers that he does now, a lot of Democrats might have stayed home, Republican voters went to the polls.

KING: When you talked about enthusiasm, there's no question, Democrats have more enthusiasm at the grass roots, but coming close doesn't count when you need seats in Congress. And these are all Republican seats. And so we're -- again, we're going to get (inaudible) but at a time when you do have the cloud of the Russian investigation, you do have people saying can they get a deal on ObamaCare? Can they finally repeal and replace ObamaCare. What's going to come?

Will they get to tax reform after that? Look at these (inaudible) some Breitbart headlines about some energy on the right after, you know, after a few tough weeks here. "Dems go bust with all dollar signs here. Biggest event of all time fails in G.A. 6 surprise race called away for Republicans. Again, polling humiliation. Again, Trump scores victory.'

So just in the sense of it the moment -- now this can pass pretty quickly, and again we're going to -- you know, special elections do not let the future predict. But for a Republican Party that could use boost of energy, this is good.

MARTIN: It is good. And I think if you polled every Democratic operative in Washington, D.C. about the four special elections that have been contested this year, they will say, yes, let's not put much money in there, let's wait for a better or (inaudible) our money for the general election 2018. The problem is the base is so enthusiastic on the Democratic side and it's got a bit of sort of the tail pulling the horse effect here. The sense of, we have got to do something about Trump.

Well, what's happening. There's a special in Montana and Georgia and Kansas, let's send money there. And before you know it, these candidates are awash in money, and there's this grassroots pressure on Washington Democrats say, guys, why are you here? They don't want to play any seats and they don't want to play in those seats because they know the math doesn't work. But it's hard to say no to your grassroots when your grassroots is on fire.

KING: And there's been some argument, and again, this will be debated and everyone will have a different reason. Now, we'll get research after the fact that, you know, in a few weeks, we'll know more about what actually happened, or what actually influence people than we do today. But some Republicans making the case by going in so heavy and trying to make this about Trump actually motivated voters who might not have voted. Republican voters who might not have voted take a moment and say, wait a minute, now you're making this about -- you know, wrong call.

All right, now we get to the Democrats, next. Jon Ossoff says last night was just the beginning of the fight, but after another loss, can Democrats somehow find a way to turn anti-Trump anger into Election Day wins.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [12:43:37] KING: Welcome back. Jon Ossoff was the Democrat who came out on the losing side in Georgia's sixth congressional district last night.

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JON OSSOFF: So this is not the outcome any of us were hoping for. But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us.

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KING: Today, the Democratic debate over why Ossoff lost and what it means for the 2018 midterms is intense to say the least. Some Liberals say Ossoff wasn't tough enough on President Trump because he was in their view trying too hard to appeal to Republican voters. Others say it was a near impossible place to begin -- race, excuse me to begin with given the big GOP registration advantage in Georgia's sixth. This much as certain for all the talk of a referendum on President Trump, Republican groups made a smart play casting a vote for Ossoff as a vote for the Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi Georgia, San Francisco just wants to say thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We already have Nancy Pelosi as our congresswoman. Now, you're going to give us Jon Ossoff as our congressman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Pelosi and Ossoff will weaken the military. ISIS? They're overrated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: San Francisco just going to love some Jon Ossoff.

MARTIN: You know, John I thought Willie Nelson lived in Austin, Texas not San Francisco but --

KING: He moves around (inaudible).

[12:45:03] MARTIN: I saw Willie is out there in San Francisco. Look, we laugh but I know from talking to sources last night that that spot got a lot of what called verbatims. Now verbatims are when you can call somebody and poll them and they tell you that they have seen the ad. You know, they bring it off to you when you ask them a broad question.

And so that ad penetrated some. It's not complicated. Suburban Republicans don't like having their taxes increased, and generally they want to vote for Republicans and they don't -- in Georgia especially, they don't have much regard for Nancy Pelosi. But I don't understand is this, why this Democrat that Jon Ossoff, why no one can run as a centrist, why didn't he run more aggressively on some kind of an issue set, some kind of an agenda. And at the same time, why did he attempt to knock back Handel a little bit.

You know, go out (inaudible) instead of this sort of milquetoast centrism. Being a moderate doesn't mean you have to run a milquetoast campaign. You can be a really aggressive moderate and go after your rival. But he just didn't do that. It was -- if you're kind of, you know, defensive --

KING: He was the candidate. Bill Clinton won the presidency once because he was a aggressive moderate (inaudible) differences.

PHILIP: And that argument is different from running harshly against Trump because I think that would have probably backfired in this particular district. I think Democrats probably -- you know, to (inaudible) point, maybe they didn't want to run this race, they didn't want to really fight in some of these other specials, but they can use all the practice they can get. They have to figure out what the message is.

It is not necessarily a anti-Trump message and you have -- you're hearing, not to make this a Bernie redux, but you're hearing some Bernie people saying, hey, what about the policy? What about the message on health care and on education and on -- you know, just what about the message? And I think that is still missing from the Democratic message.

KING: To that point, not necessarily Bernie guy even more moderate Democrat in the House. Seth Moulton, former Iraq war veteran, a guy who some people think might try to make a run for president in 2020, a younger Democrat, you know, last night saying, "We need a genuinely new message, a serious jobs plan that reaches all Americans and a bigger tent not a smaller one. Focus on the future."

"Race better be a wake up call for Democrats, business as usual isn't working. Time to stop rehashing 2016 and talk about the future."

TALEV: And, you know, Massachusetts kind of a way, that's a call for centrism, right? Because -- and this is fundamentally what we were talking about since (inaudible), right which is like, what's the future of the Democratic Party? Who is the Democratic Party? And what the Republicans showed in the Georgia special district is that, you can be in the middle and still vote for your party, and not be swayed to the other side. What the Democrats are struggling over which is a really different question which is, do you need to energize the Liberal base in order to turn out -- or will the base turn out for a centrist in order to win a general election.

KING: You've got to win 24 Republican seats. So Liberals are not going all these seats. (Inaudible) people thought on their district but I just want a little bit of history though for Democrats who think the world is over because they have lost these elections.

Let's go back in time, 2005, 2006, the Democrats lost special elections, lost three. We're now on the general election to pick up 30 seats. (Inaudible) for the Republicans in the 2009-2010, in special election seasons, the Republicans lost three, everybody says as well as me, they went on to win 63 seats. So, what happened yesterday is not necessarily indicative of what's going to happen next November. But there are lessons to be learned. WARREN: Yes -- but I think if you look at some of the problems that Ossoff have (inaudible). Thirty years old, has no resume, has no real experience. I mean, a lot of those mistakes that you mentioned about what he could have done, is just something that a first-time candidate would think.

He didn't live in the district, he lives, you know, a couple of miles away. Something very easy for him to do would be to -- between the primary and the runoff is go get an apartment in the district. This was something -- I mean, it seems silly and simple but this is something people actually care about.

And even, you know, down to the fact that he, the long-time girlfriend and then they get engaged. I mean, all of this sort of plays into the idea, a lot of swing voters that Jon Ossoff would have needed to pull over the Democratic side, probably would have looked at him and thought, he's like my son. And I don't know if that translate into now I'm going to vote for him for Congress.

MARTIN: To add, Jon is wrapped in generational angst. Seth Moultons of the world, they want new leadership, they want us to step up. And, you know, a lot of this is rooted in frustration with Nancy Pelosi. There are lot in Hill today, you know.

KING: Yes, a lot of frustration with her, but her team says she's the only one that can raise the money as well. So if you need money to run this election (inaudible). It's an interesting debate. It won't stop today.

Want an answer from the White House on the big issue facing the country? We'll ask the president's press secretary. And then cross your fingers.

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[12:53:46] KING: Welcome back. The parallel universe that is the Trump White House briefing room was back in business yesterday after more than a week without an on camera briefing. Among the questions, this, still unanswered seven months after Election Day and five months after Inauguration Day, does the president of the United States believe Russia interfered with the 2016 election?

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does President Trump believe that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 elections?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think I have not sat down and talked to him about that specific thing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Didn't he say it was fake news and that Russia meddling was fake news?

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KING: Why? I mean, why come out there -- if -- does the president support, you know, a $60 billion cut in program x, I haven't talked to the president about that, I get. But seven months after the election, five months after inauguration? Is it --

MARTIN: But (inaudible) said that he does believe it at the press conference, it's not new.

PHILIP: But at the same time, to be fair to Sean Spicer, he knows that the minute he goes out and says something the president believes, the president's going to get on Twitter five minutes later and contradict him. He gets that. And I think that we have every reason to believe that when the president is left to his own devices, he is on Twitter. What he says about the Russia investigation is not a distinction.

[12:55:04] KING: So a person paid by taxpayers to stand in front of a podium that has the presidential seal -- or the White House seal, excuse me, on it to answer questions, won't answer any controversial questions because he's afraid his boss is going to undermine him, therefore it's useless?

PHILIP: And we also have --

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KING: But what's the point? He just did an interview with Laura Ingraham who some people think could be his ultimate replacement on the radio. He's saying, reporters aren't interested in performance art and so there aren't real questions. Well, maybe if (inaudible).

WARREN: It will took longer than 12 minutes which is-- and that was one refreshing thing about yesterday's which is that he did take questions longer (inaudible). I mean, there was an example of this where Sean Spicer basically said something about things are working out between China on this whole North Korea issue. And then literally about 10 minutes after the briefing come and says, I still haven't gotten an answer about what he means by that. He's just safer not saying it.

TALEV: I also think to Abby's point, Sean knows that if he says anything about this from the podium, it becomes the news for the day and they don't want (inaudible).

KING: That is the reason they canceled the briefings. They got nothing to say.

Thanks for joining us in the Inside Politics. See you back here at this time tomorrow. Wolf Blitzer, up after a quick break.

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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're following breaking news. We want to welcome our viewers --