MACON, Ga. — Jon Ossoff delivered the first sign of a Democratic comeback just months into the Trump era. On Tuesday, he could complete his party’s revival with the Senate on the line — but as a very different candidate in a different party and state than four years ago.
In 2017, Ossoff harped on wasteful spending and deficits in Washington and promoted importing more high-tech jobs in his near-miss campaign for a longtime Republican House seat outside Atlanta. As a Senate candidate, Ossoff is closing out the Georgia runoffs by calling for putting checks in people’s hands amid the coronavirus pandemic and improving the government’s response. He is calling for new civil rights legislation, boosting the federal minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and passing ambitious infrastructure and jobs programs.
Ossoff’s book-end runs for office during President Donald Trump’s term illustrate a major shift in the Democratic Party in a few short years, from the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs to Ossoff’s House campaign launch exactly four years prior. His House campaign foreshadowed Democrats’ suburban revival and the heavyweight force of small-dollar donors in 2018 and 2020.
Now, Ossoff’s Senate campaign against Republican incumbent David Perdue, with the majority at stake in Georgia’s runoffs, is demonstrating a big shift in what Democrats believe will work in the most closely divided places in the country, as Georgia’s 6th District was in 2017 and the state of Georgia is now in 2020.
Ossoff called his tandem Senate campaigns with fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock the “biggest election in the history of the state of Georgia” before a crowd of more than a hundred supporters at a drive-in rally here Saturday night, standing on a stage in the rain as car horns blared.
"Donald Trump is leaving. He may not know it yet, but he’s on the way out,” Ossoff said. “And Georgia voters sent Donald Trump packing. You did that, Macon. So the question now is what comes next."
In interviews and at his events, Democratic allies say Ossoff hasn’t necessarily changed, but has sharpened as a candidate. Stacey Abrams, the unofficial leader of Georgia Democrats who ran for governor in 2018, said that Ossoff is speaking directly to voters’ biggest concern in his Senate campaign. In an interview, Abrams called running for office a “steep learning curve” and said Ossoff has “mastered it admirably.”
“He has become such a seasoned, thoughtful candidate who understands the needs of voters, but also understands the art of communication,” Abrams said.
That art has created big moments for Ossoff, who called Perdue a “crook” over controversial stock trades during a debate in the general election, a moment that drove donations and attention on social media in the closing days of the election. He used a live Fox News interview last week to escalate an attack against GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is running against Warnock.
While Democrats have celebrated Ossoff’s flair in 2020, Republicans have scoffed at those viral moments, and they point out that his debate moment didn’t amount to a win in November. Perdue narrowly missed the 50 percent threshold to win the race outright, but he ran about 88,000 votes ahead of Ossoff. Speaking on the campaign trail, Perdue adds up his votes and those for the Libertarian candidate, arguing that 52.5 percent of the state’s voters rejected Ossoff and his “Democratic liberal, socialist agenda.“
“In every other state but one, I’ve already won this race,” Perdue told supporters at an event Wednesday, noting that Georgia’s unusual runoff rule requires a majority to win, as opposed to just finishing first. Perdue had to leave the campaign trail the next day to quarantine after a close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.
As Ossoff has evolved as a candidate, he has also been at the leading edge of broader changes in Georgia that put Perdue in political danger. Six years ago, Perdue won his first election handily while performing strongly in Atlanta’s ancestrally Republican suburbs — such as Cobb County, which voted for Perdue by 13 percentage points six years ago.
But Trump lost the county by 2 points in 2016. Biden and Ossoff both carried it by double digits in November, though Biden slightly outpaced the Senate candidate’s performance.
Ossoff’s race helped push the rapid change in that area, which continued when Abrams ran for governor and Rep. Lucy McBath flipped Georgia’s 6th District for Democrats in 2018. Angelika Kausche, a volunteer for Ossoff’s campaign in 2017, said his House campaign gave her and others a way to channel frustration over Trump’s election. Kausche ended up running for, and flipping, a suburban state House district.
“We were all disappointed that he didn’t win, but he came very close and basically showed us that this idea that this is all so Republican is a myth,” Kausche said.
"There were a lot of people like me who came out of their safe space saying ‘I’m an independent,’ and saying we have to stand up for who we are and the values we represent, and come out and really fight for Democrats," Kausche added, crediting Ossoff’s campaign for the shift.
Ossoff has built on top of that campaign now, funded by the $100 million he raked in for the runoff. His campaign has touted its get-out-the-vote efforts, including announcing this week that it hired 2,000 young, mostly Black organizers to conduct outreach in their communities and online.
“What I learned in 2017 was about the power of ordinary people when they band together to build political power and to make change,” Ossoff told reporters on Saturday. “This turnout effort that’s happening in Georgia right now is totally unprecedented, and the engagement and the involvement of young people is unprecedented here in Georgia.”
The Republican take on Ossoff has also changed somewhat. The party hit him in 2017 for having a thin resume and living outside his district. This year, along with continuing to attack his resume, Republican groups have added an onslaught of TV ads linking him to China because his film company was paid a licensing fee by a Hong Kong media company to air a documentary. GOP opponents have also taken to calling Ossoff a socialist, an attack levied against most Democratic candidates in 2020.
“Only a 33-year-old trust fund socialist could spend the better part of three years campaigning for jobs he isn’t qualified for,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.
Corry Bliss, a GOP operative who led the super PAC that attacked Ossoff during his House campaign, argued Ossoff was competitive then and now because of his fundraising.
“Raising $100 million from California could help anyone cover up flaws,” Bliss said. “At the end of the day Jon Ossoff’s undoing will be the same as 2017, that he’s an unaccomplished liberal.”
But Democrats’ Senate hopes rest on the fact that Georgia has continued to evolve in the past four years. Biden became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential race in close to three decades, after Abrams narrowly lost her race for governor two years ago. The Senate races will be close, but the early turnout among Black and young voters has given Democrats some optimism.
After Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz rallied with Ossoff in front of City Hall on Saturday, Girtz said Democratic enthusiasm in Georgia has snowballed since Ossoff demonstrated in 2017 how close the party was to breaking through in new places.
“As a member of the Democratic Party here in Georgia, I feel like we’re a train rolling down the tracks and we’re never going back to statewide exclusively Republican leadership,” Girtz said.
He also credited Ossoff with focusing outside the major population centers of the state, a necessity since Ossoff started the Senate race universally known in the Atlanta area but without a footprint in the rest of Georgia.
Ossoff has talked about his visit to Cuthbert, a small town in the southwest part of the state where a rural hospital closed this year, emphasizing his focus on health care. Between the rallies in Athens and Macon, Ossoff held an event in Eatonton, a town of 7,000 in the center of the state.
“These are not major meccas, but you’ve got to activate people in every town of 5,000 and 10,000 and 100,000 people,” Girtz said. “It can’t just be Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta, Athens."
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