Jon Ossoff stood ramrod-straight and spoke in sparing phrases, as if a great burden rests on his 30-year-old shoulders. To hear from many of the 150 people who crowded a Dunwoody synagogue the other night to meet him, it’s easy to understand why.
“The Republican side has been showing up to vote here for years, and we haven’t been energized,” said Melanie Manning, among the Democrats pinning her hopes on Ossoff. “Now we are. This election will be different.”
No Democrat has represented Georgia’s 6th Congressional District since Newt Gingrich won the seat in 1978, and since then the reliably conservative district, which now spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, has launched the congressional careers of Johnny Isakson and Tom Price.
But Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who was until recently unknown to even veteran Georgia strategists, has quickly captured the imagination of Democrats hoping to notch an early victory against Donald Trump. The special election will be among the first in the nation since Trump became president.
His campaign claims nearly $2 million in donations in less than two months, an almost unfathomable amount for a political newcomer. He has racked up celebrity support and a string of big-name endorsements. And national Democrats are pouring staff and resources into his race.
Still, the odds are stacked deeply against Democrats in the 6th, which routinely elected Price by huge margins. The April 18 special election to fill Price’s seat has 18 candidates, and Ossoff isn’t even a shoo-in to make the June 20 runoff.
Democrats seem willing to take the risk. Many see him as a first chance to turn the wave of left-leaning outrage at Trump’s election and channel it into action. Trump eked out just a 1-point victory in the 6th, and Ossoff’s campaign casts him as a way to get under the president’s skin.
“Make Trump Furious,” his website proclaims.
The making of a darling
Ossoff makes for an unlikely Democratic darling. His campaign announcement was met with fits of head-scratching by some influential Democrats — and shrugs by local Republicans.
And for all his polish — the London School of Economics graduate speaks French and talks earnestly of the need for “extremely competent constituent service” — Ossoff’s tone doesn’t match the anti-Trump outcry from those who want an all-out battle against the president.
“This is not going to be a campaign focused on opposition to Donald Trump. This is going to be a campaign focused on the needs and concerns of every voter in the 6th District,” he said. “Many people are concerned about the White House, but they’re more concerned about pocketbook issues.”
A north DeKalb native, Ossoff was a 17-year-old student at the Paideia School when he read U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ autobiography and, on a whim, wrote a letter asking for a job. Within months he was interning in the Atlanta Democrat’s Washington office.
While a student at Georgetown University, he volunteered for Hank Johnson’s 2006 challenge against U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney. He wound up becoming deputy communications chief during the campaign, and he worked as a legislative aide for Johnson on Capitol Hill after his victory.
Ossoff joined a filmmaking firm after leaving Johnson’s office, and his documentaries exposed corrupt judges in Ghana and Islamic State atrocities in Iraq. He entered the congressional race in January armed with $250,000 in cash commitments and the blessings of Johnson and Lewis.
He’s quick to bring up the fact that he doesn’t live in the district, but just south of the line so his girlfriend of 12 years, an Emory University medical student, can walk to work. Members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, although Ossoff said he will move to the 6th after she graduates.
Ossoff quickly shook up the Democratic side of the race, scaring off former state Rep. Sally Harrell and another fresh-faced contender. But four other Democrats are still in the hunt, including ex-state Sen. Ron Slotin, who said he won’t bow to pressure to drop out.
“I trust the voters of the district to select who the best person is to represent them, and I think I’ll be that candidate,” said Slotin, who represented an intown Atlanta district in the 1990s.
The Republican side is a free for all, with several big names among the 11 GOP candidates in the field. GOP contenders also wrestle with the Trump effect, with staunch supporters of the president running alongside others who vow to be a check on his power.
Special elections are typically low-turnout affairs, and this one is likely to be no different, in spite of anti Trump sentiment. What makes it even more unpredictable is that all 18 candidates — two independents are also in the race — will be on the same ballot.
If history is a guide, there will be no upset. The last time a Georgia congressional seat flipped in a special election was in 1872, according to an analysis by University of Minnesota political scientist Eric Ostermeier, and few of the 30 races since then have even been close.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible,” former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden said. “But the numbers are very difficult for a Democrat in that area.”
The Marietta Democrat has a perspective on the race unlike any other. In 1983, he emerged the winner of an even more crowded Georgia special election — his race featured 20 contenders — to represent the neighboring 7th District. He served the Cobb County-based district until his 1995 defeat.
“I’ve been real impressed with Jon Ossoff. He’s doing all the right things. And I think he’s got a great chance at getting in the runoff,” said Darden, who now works for the mega-size Dentons law firm. “But look at it realistically: It’s a very difficult task.”
The big guns
Ossoff will have some timely reinforcements in his corner.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it would commit nine field staffers to organize on-the-ground efforts in the district. Democratic National Committee officials told reporters in Atlanta that the party would also invest in the race.
Several celebrities, including the actresses Debra Messing and Kristen Bell, have pledged their help. And Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Michael Smith said the state organization would work to “deliver the White House its first electoral defeat.”
There’s also support from the left-leaning Daily Kos website, which so far has raised nearly $1 million for Ossoff.
That’s painted something of a bull’s-eye on Ossoff’s back. No leading GOP contender has directly confronted him, but the National Republican Congressional Committee painted the Democrat as a “far-left Bernie Sanders guy.” (Ossoff, for his part, said he backed Hillary Clinton.)
Many of Ossoff’s rival campaigns envision a scenario where he emerges as the leading vote-getter against a splintered field of Republicans in April, only to face a unified GOP front in the runoff. Analysts are quick to note the highest-propensity voter in those contests are also the most likely to side with the GOP: senior citizens.
“If Republican candidates split the vote, a Democrat could conceivably sneak into the runoff,” Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said. “But that Democrat would almost surely lose the runoff. The numbers just aren’t there yet. Let’s see what it looks like in 2024.”
The cold electoral calculus helps explain why Ossoff tries to tread a careful line. He talks often of the “embarrassment” of a Trump White House while also trying to appeal to moderates and disillusioned Republicans who don’t want anything to do with the Democratic applause lines.
“This is about more than Donald Trump. It’s about the way people feel about Washington,” Ossoff said. “The case I’m making to people is that we can be strong and prosperous and secure without giving in to division and fear and meanness.”
It’s exactly what Jill Vogin wanted to hear. The Dunwoody executive hardly paid attention to local politics before November, but Trump’s victory triggered a wave of energy that led her to march in Washington the day after his inauguration.
“Trump has really turned politics on its head,” Vogin said. “And people want a candidate like Jon who is interested in reaching across the aisle and bringing sanity back.”