Stage One was marches and protests. Stage Two was calls and emails to Congress. Now, the volunteers at Democrat Jon Ossoff’s headquarters are deep into Stage Three — channeling anti-Trump movement energy into flipping Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District.
The district is holding a special election April 18 to fill the House seat of Tom Price, recently confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services. The outcome carries a lot of weight, and not only because it’s among the first congressional races of the Trump era.
This affluent district has been a symbol of Republican power since Newt Gingrich won in 1978. In 2016, Price took the seat by a whopping 23-point margin, but the Republican hold may be weakening: Hillary Clinton lost it by just one point in November.
The 30-year-old Ossoff was a national security aide to Rep. Hank Johnson (D‑Ga.) for five years before taking the reins of a small London-based documentary film business that investigates corrupt officials and organized crime.
He’s joined on the ballot by four other Democrats, but he’s the one donors are betting on. In three months, his campaign has netted more than $8 million, from nearly 200,000 donors (many of them readers of the Daily Kos). He has endorsements from Johnson and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D‑Ga.), and support from a growing team of volunteers, some of who have taken up the hashtag #WorkYourOssoff.
But all of this advance praise left some Georgia progressives wary. Fearing a repeat of the presidential primary, where Democrats rushed to coronate a frontrunner without properly considering alternatives, plenty of skeptics were among the more than 500 to attend a Democratic forum March 12 to judge Ossoff for themselves.
Mary Ann Chapman and Anne McQuade had heard the buzz about Ossoff, but as Chapman puts it, “I don’t like to be told what to think.” On stage, she says, Ossoff comes across as intelligent and policy-oriented. “He seems like the kind of person that, if you went to D.C. to talk to him, he’d listen.”
His stands on issues don’t differ much from the other candidates, but the crowd seemed to appreciate his poise. When former state senator Ron Slotin tried to attack Ossoff for basing his company in London, Ossoff drew cheers for his simple response: “I don’t think international experience in this day and age is disqualifying.”
Ossoff then announced his real advantage: the 7,500 volunteers who have signed up to knock on doors and make calls. He noted this ground game would be especially important in an off-term election, when much of the electorate needs to be alerted about the race.
After the forum, Chapman and McQuade were impressed with Ossoff — and they weren’t alone. A straw poll favored Ossoff with 73 percent support; the next closest candidate had only 10 percent. The two women can’t actually vote in the election because they live in a neighboring district, but McQuade has since volunteered to phone bank with Ossoff’s team.
The next weekend, hundreds of volunteers showed up at one of Ossoff’s campaign offices to canvass and phone bank. About two-thirds were women, and most said they had never canvassed before. One neophyte, who brought his 13-year-old son, said his Ossoff yard sign had encouraged some red-state neighbors to “come out of the closet” as liberals. “Two of them asked for signs themselves, but the others didn’t seem ready to go public yet.”
It’s clear that Ossoff has beaten the other Democrats for money and volunteers. Now he needs to beat the Republicans. He’s still a long shot, but the format of this race — a “jungle primary” — could favor the party with one strong candidate. All candidates from all parties will be on the April 18 ballot at the same time. If no candidate breaks 50 percent, there will be a runoff between the top two on June 20.
A March poll of likely voters shows Ossoff has momentum. He leads the field with 41 percent (up 9 percent from February). The only other Democrat on the poll — Slotin — has 3 percent.
Of those polled, 47 percent picked one of six listed GOP candidates, who range from staunch Trump supporters to more Trump-skeptical establishment conservatives. But no individual Republican reached even 17 percent. Seven percent were undecided or “voting for someone else.”
The Ossoff campaign is fighting to take it all in the first round, before the Republicans can coalesce resources behind one candidate. It’s also traditionally more difficult to get Democrats out for a second round of voting.
Ossoff’s momentum undoubtedly has the GOP nervous. Ads from thee Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, are trying to paint the candidate as a wild and inexperienced frat boy — two ads show a college-age Ossoff dressed as Han Solo, playing a drinking game. In one, Ossoff has the phrase “he worked for Al Jazeera” superimposed across his chest (his company has produced films for Al Jazeera).
Ossoff’s supporters hope that undecideds and even some Republicans are weary of these fear tactics. “I’ve never been involved whatever in politics,” says McQuade, “but after 45 got elected … I just can’t sit by and watch everything that’s been accomplished — especially healthcare — get ripped apart. I’m facing medical bills that will only get worse, and I may lose my house — it’s that bad.”
Most citizens in Georgia’s Sixth District — the wealthiest in the state — may be insulated from the worst effects of Trump’s presidency. Many may even stand to gain. But Ossoff is also banking on voters caring about what he calls “core American values,” and many of his followers echo that sentiment.
“I never knew how much I took for granted things like the checks and balances of the three branches, a free press and being a nation of immigrants, until it’s all come under attack,” Linda Collett said at the forum, draped in a facsimile of the American flag. “I think we should all be about claiming these symbols for us, and not ceding them to the Republicans.”