In Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff Tries To Vanquish 17 Candidates At Once
Two weeks before a special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District seat, which takes place this Tuesday, the thirty-year-old Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff stood on a busy North Atlanta street corner brandishing a lightsaber. His combatant was a giggling eight-year-old boy who didn’t grasp the broader sabering context: soon after Ossoff declared his candidacy to replace Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, in January, an odd attack ad appeared, showing Ossoff, in his Georgetown days, dressed as Han Solo from “Star Wars,” for a spoof film made by Ossoff’s college a-cappella group. Paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund, the ad was presumably meant to portray Ossoff, who most recently worked as a documentary filmmaker exposing judicial corruption and wartime atrocities, as young, unserious, and . . . a leader in the alliance to restore the Republic? Somehow, the ad did little to dissuade voters from considering the political novice: in the weeks since, he has risen to the head of an eighteen-candidate pack, garnering forty-five per cent of the vote in a poll released this past Friday.
As Ossoff and his eight-year-old foe performed their roadside lightsaber act, dozens of supporters raised handwritten signs, many of which read, “vote your ossoff!” Cars honked approval as they passed. A line cook from a nearby Waffle House appeared, in his apron, offering “free waffles to Ossoff voters!” (It was unclear whether the offer had his bosses’ approval, but the cook’s support was noted.) At one point, Ossoff’s chief Republican rival, Karen Handel, a former Secretary of State in Georgia who has also run, unsuccessfully, for the Republican nominations for governor and senator, drove by and stopped for a red light. A volunteer for Ossoff, not recognizing her, asked for her support. “I’ll be voting for myself,” Handel reportedly said.
Handel has the lead among the Republicans in the race, at between seventeen and twenty-one per cent, according to the latest polls. On Tuesday, Democrats, Republicans, and independents will all appear on one ballot. Unless one candidate captures a full fifty per cent of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two finishers, on June 20th. Ossoff’s overall polling lead is formidable, but it also reflects a crowded conservative field that features pro-Trump Republicans, establishment Republicans, at least one vocally anti-Trump Republican, and a John Wayne-quoting Muslim Republican named Mohammad Ali Bhuiyan. Their résumés are just as varied: at a nonpartisan candidate forum and luncheon in late March, Handel and Ossoff were joined onstage by a former flight attendant, a Georgia State University Italian professor, a cardiologist, the Trump campaign’s “diversity chief,” and twelve others. Ossoff sat in the middle, looking not unlike a diligent schoolboy surrounded by disgruntled principals.
“If I had to put money on it, I’d say Ossoff is headed for a runoff against Karen Handel,” Jim Galloway, a longtime political columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told me. She would be poised to become the first female Republican member of Congress from Georgia. “Ossoff is going to look for the support of college-educated women and independents,” Galloway said. “And they’re not going to be turned off by Handel.” Galloway said that he would be “mildly surprised” if Ossoff won outright on Tuesday.
At the forum, Handel—who is also the author of a book, “Planned Bullyhood,” about her time at the breast-cancer charity Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the organization’s relationship to Planned Parenthood—made her case for reducing corporate taxes and repealing Obamacare. Ossoff, meanwhile, said that he would seek to help improve Obamacare and generally delivered a fairly traditional Democratic message, with a dose of fiscal conservatism. “A country says a lot about its values and priorities in how it balances its books,” he said. “And, as we seek to achieve fiscal responsibility, to do so on the backs of folks who have no voice—low-income children or seniors—I think reflects the wrong set of priorities.” The Georgia Sixth, which is about seventy per cent white, is one of the wealthiest districts in the country.
Trump’s name rarely came up during the two-hour forum, though he loomed over everything. (Bruce LeVell, Trump’s diversity chief during the campaign, broke from the pack by invoking him explicitly, and approvingly: “I know Trump well,” he said, “and will help achieve his goals.”) Voters in the area tend to be less circumspect. When I walked around the district with Ossoff six weeks ago, it was clear that, while many voters didn’t know who Ossoff was or what, exactly, he stood for, they were certain in their dislike for Trump—and ready to vote for any reasonable candidate who would, to use one of Ossoff’s campaign slogans, “make Trump furious.” Back then, Ossoff insisted to me that he was focussed on local issues, not national politics. But he has kept up a steady beat of Trump criticism in his advertising. In one of his TV spots currently flooding Atlanta’s airwaves, Ossoff says, of the President,
“He’s not only embarrassing us on the world stage—he could start an unnecessary war.”
Ossoff can afford to blanket local television in part thanks to the millions of dollars that have poured into his campaign from individual donors all over the country. Dozens of volunteers from outside the state have also come to Georgia to spread his message. Ossoff recently landed on the cover of New York magazine, which called him “The Trump-Hate Weather Vane,” and stories have also appeared in Time and Atlantic. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put ads on Atlanta radio featuring the actor Samuel L. Jackson, a Morehouse alum. (“We have to channel the great vengeance and furious anger we have for this Administration into votes at the ballot box,” Jackson says in the spot.) Meanwhile, the actress Alyssa Milano, currently filming a project in Atlanta, drove Ossoff supporters to vote early during her downtime. The band Imagine Dragons has given the campaign permission to use one of its songs—its drummer, Daniel Platzman, was in Ossoff’s high-school class—though it hasn’t appeared in an ad yet.
That kind of national, Hollywood attention may have a mixed effect. In another special election, Republicans held onto a contested congressional seat in Kansaswhen the state treasurer Ron Estes beat the Democratic political newcomer and civil-rights lawyer James Thompson by just seven points. Thompson, unlike Ossoff, had just a few hundred thousand dollars at his campaign’s disposal, and tougher math to deal with: Trump had won Kansas’s Fourth District by twenty-seven points in November, while the President only took Georgia’s Sixth by one. But some observers have argued that the absence of outsiders meddling in the Kansas election may have actually helped Thompson, who concentrated much of his criticism on Kansas’s unpopular Republican governor, Sam Brownback. After the race, Thompson credited Trump with securing his opponent’s victory. (On Sunday night, Trump tweeted, “The recent Kansas election (Congress) was a really big media event, until the Republicans won. Now they play the same game with Georgia-BAD!”)
Few of the Republicans in the Georgia race have loudly embraced the President. But just one of the eleven, the local energy entrepreneur David Abroms, who has been polling below two per cent, has disclosed that he voted for someone other than Trump last November. (He opted for the independent candidate Evan McMullin.) Abroms was also the only Republican candidate to object when another anti-Ossoff ad recently tried to make hay of the fact that Ossoff’s documentary production company has done work for the television network Al Jazeera, which the ad called “a mouthpiece for terrorists.” It went on, about Ossoff, “What is he hiding, and how can we trust him?”
On that street corner earlier this month, when the lightsabering had ceased, and just a few minutes before Ossoff left for another rally in a different part of the district, a man who looked roughly Ossoff’s age walked up to the crowd. He wore a baseball cap and a Selena Gomez T-shirt. “Scott!” Ossoff exclaimed, recognizing an old a-cappella buddy. Ossoff turned back to the small crowd, smiling. “Scott played Vader in . . . the film,” he said. I chatted with Scott, who now works in insurance and had happened to be driving by the rally, before he left. “You put a Darth Vader mask on one time,” he said, “and this is what happens!”