If national Democrats could grow a near-ideal Congressional candidate in a lab, the product would look a lot like Jon Ossoff, the lanky 30 year-old former Capitol Hill staffer who is running to replace Rep. Tom Price in Georgia’s 6th congressional district.
Ossoff grew up in the suburban Atlanta district, went to Georgetown and the London School of Economics, and calls liberal icon Rep. John Lewis a mentor. When Ossoff, who is now the CEO of a documentary film company, heard that Price had been tapped as Donald Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services, he went to Lewis to get his advice on running in the Republican stronghold.
“He said if anyone can do it, you can do it,” Ossoff recalled in an interview with the Daily Beast.
“If” is the operative word in the 6th District, which has been a designated safe space for Republicans since the days that Democrats dominated the rest of the state. Newt Gingrich launched his political career as the congressman there, as did now-Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Price, it’s most recent occupant, never dipped below 60% in an election.
But a closer look at the terrain reveals the reason behind Democrats’ guarded optimism about winning the seat back. Although Price was consistently reelected, his margin of victory shrank by about four points with every election cycle with even a weak opponent. Reapportionment in 2012 brought new, younger faces into the district.
While Mitt Romney dominated the district by 24 points, Donald Trump only carried it by a point, with 48% to Hillary Clinton’s 47%. Other than a district in Utah, the seat had the second-largest swing toward Democrats of any in the country compared to 2012.
Thanks largely to Lewis’ endorsement and the progressive support that quickly followed, Osoff is now flush with cash—he’s raised $1.85 million in five weeks—and has rocketed to prominence among the 13 Republicans and five Democrats running in the all-in jungle primary on April 18. The top two finishers will go to a June runoff, regardless of party, if no one clears 50% on Election Day. Even in the sprawling field, Democrats largely believe they have found their man in Ossoff.
“When John Lewis says someone is worth backing, that's a signal progressives everywhere have to take seriously,” said David Nir, the political director of Daily Kos, which endorsed Ossoff shortly after Lewis’s nod. “In Ossoff's case, wow, has that meant an insane amount of money.”
The ActBlue page that Daily Kos set up for activists to support Ossoff raised more than $800,000 in a week, double what they raised for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s entire Senate bid.
“Our community is fired up with an unprecedented level of intensity, and I don't use that word casually,” Nir said. The Ossoff campaign also has had 5,000 volunteer sign ups. Parking lots at his meet-and-greets overflow. Two hundred people showed up to volunteer for him on Saturday.
Personally, he is probably the type of young person old people wish Millennials would be. He wears a dark suit and tie to campaign, even to walk door-to-door asking for votes. He’s still dating his high school sweetheart, a fourth year medical student at Emory University. He talks a lot about humility and respect. He has no beard.
But while Ossoff’s shortcomings as a candidate are limited, they are also potentially serious. For one thing, he does not live in the district. Although he was raised there and his parents are still 6th district residents, Ossoff and his girlfriend live about 10 minutes south so that she can walk to work for early morning hospital shifts. It’s not a legal requirement that he live there, but the National Republican Campaign Committee has already gone to the trouble of labeling him “a carpetbagger.”
Also, although progressives have embraced Ossoff as a potential savior, he is not the fire breather many liberals are craving. He voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and calls the battle between moderates and progressives in the party “last year’s fight.” Asked whether a vote for him should be considered a vote against Donald Trump, he said, “No. It’s a vote for me and what I stand for.”
What Ossoff stands for is an economy-first pragmatism buttressed by unqualified support for liberal causes, including Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. He infuses his comments about Trump with an argument for, and a demonstration of, civil discourse. “People are concerned that Trump may embarrass us on the world stage, that he may not be competent to do the job, and that he’s dishonest,” he told me, adding, “I share all of those concerns.”
The only time he came close to raising his voice in two interviews was on the subject of John Lewis and Trump’s tweet that the congressman, who was once beaten bloody at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., was “all talk, talk, talk. No action. Sad!” Ossoff’s said, “Don’t mess with John Lewis. You’ll regret it.”
Even if Ossoff isn't in pitchfork-resistance mode, it is clear that many of his supporters see him as their first, best hope to stop Donald Trump.
Becky Albertali, a young adult author who lives with her husband and two young sons in the district said the she and her suburban mom friends “all into full resistance.”
“We call our senators every day and a lot of times it feels hopeless. They don’t represent us,” she said. “I feel like Ossoff would represent us.”
Albertali and her fellow author, Aisha Saeed, are both volunteering for Ossoff. “I have never voted in a special election. I don’t even think I’ve voted in midterms,” said Saeed. “But the election really woke me up. I hope it has woken up everybody else.”
Both locally and nationally, the question now is whether Trump’s weakness in Republican districts like Ga-6 was a one-time-only stumble or a new dynamic that Democrats use to win elections. This special election will be the first test. Even longtime local Democrats are skeptical. “My gut tells me no, but these are strange times,” said one.
David Abroms, a businessman and one of the Republicans in the race, said the district is not within any Democrat’s reach. “It’s just a solid Republican district. It’s not a toss-up,” said Abroms, who is pumping more than $250,000 of his own money into the race. That’s hardly the kind of cash most people would put into a race that could go either way.
“I know Trump won it by a whisker, but Tom Price won it by 15 points, Romney won it by more than 20,” he said. “People should take that into account.”
Even Daily Kos’ Nir has to tell his own people to curb their enthusiasm. “As excited as we all are, I constantly remind folks that this is a difficult race, and that Georgia's 6th remains a conservative district.”
But he added that a single word puts the race within the realm of possibility: Resistance. “If that enthusiasm translates into the ballot box, that could make all the difference in a district like this one.”
Even when Ossoff stood in front of the first door he had ever knocked on to asked someone for their vote, it was clear that the resistance had come to Georgia and that Ossoff will be riding its wave as far as it takes him on April 18th.
“Hey man, I’m voting for you!” a man yelled when he heard Ossoff say his name. “Screw Donald Trump, dude!”