The feisty Handel now heads to an Aug. 10 runoff. She will face the more laid-back Nathan Deal, a former congressman who served many years in Washington. Deal switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican after the 1994 election, when Georgia's Newt Gingrich engineered his "Republican Revolution" that took control of the House.
Deal has enjoyed the support of leaders of the more socially conservative political organizations in the state, such as Georgia Right to Life. He and Handel have traded accusations, especially over abortion. Each claims the other is more "pro abortion," and Handel has been painted as being "pro gay rights."
But the mood in the ninth-most-populous state has little to do with social issues, as it might have during better economic times. Georgia ballooned in population and prosperity especially from the late 1990s until the Great Recession struck. Voters now understandably appear to be preoccupied with jobs and personal economic security.
Handel was chair of Fulton County, home to Atlanta, before getting elected as secretary of state in 2006. She has a stellar Republican resume.
Possible strikes against her and her candidacy are that she has been hit with an ethics complaint and that she never got the opportunity to earn a college degree. The latter is usually a deal-breaker in many states for aspiring statewide officeholders.
But during the primary campaign, Handel was on the receiving end of something stronger than a sheepskin from the most prestigious college. None other than Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the reigning queen of the Republican Party, entered on her personal Facebook page an endorsement of Handel a week or so before Election Day in Georgia.
This wasn't the first time Palin cast her blessing on a female candidate in a quirky way. In a race elsewhere that shall go unnamed, the woman who enjoyed an "endorsement" never got a verbal boost at all from Palin.
Instead, the woman's campaign opened an envelope and found inside a substantial check from Palin's political action committee. The candidate simply interpreted the money as an endorsement, and Palin never said otherwise.
Deal, Handel's GOP runoff opponent, hasn't enjoyed such luck. Last week the Atlanta newspaper disclosed a subpoena from a federal grand jury. It was issued to Georgia's revenue commissioner and asked for all documents and information related to a meeting - a quite contentious meeting - Deal once had with the commissioner. The topic of discussion was a business relationship Deal and a partner had with the state for many years.
Deal has not been named as a target of the investigation. Nor has he been informed that he is in any way involved with the grand jury's inquiry.
Politically, that may not matter. One can imagine what campaign TV ads the Handel team will produce in the days leading up to the runoff that will utter the chilling words "grand jury investigation."
Twelve years ago, I wrote a book called "PowerChicks: How Women Will Dominate America." Unluckily for me, I may have been a bit ahead of the times. But now, with women political nominees popping up everywhere, and with Sarah Palin wielding so much clout, the age of the PowerChick finally may have arrived.
Should Karen Handel become the first woman nominated for governor in this, one of the states that has never elected one, she will face one daunting task. She will have to contend with the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former Gov. Roy Barnes. He is a brilliant campaign strategist and a gifted orator. He may appeal to many independent voters who otherwise would vote for a Republican nominee.
Barnes' biggest woe is timing. In running for governor in 2010, he is saddled with affiliation with the national Democratic Party and President Barack Obama.
In combination, those two are woefully unpopular with most Georgia voters.
Even so, Barnes is a force the likes of which few political opponents ever face. If Handel emerges as the GOP's latest "Powerchick," she will have to be up to the task of fighting a political master. It could be quite a show.
Matt Towery of Atlanta is author of the new book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.