Donald Trump had been president for three months. Democrats were at once despondent and determined. Enter a young political neophyte, one of 18 candidates to vie for the congressional seat that Newt Gingrich long held.
And just like that, 30-year-old Jon Ossoff became the face of the resistance.
Wealthy and not-so-wealthy donors from across the country poured millions into his campaign coffers. Hollywood celebrities lined up to back him and some, like Samuel L. Jackson and Alyssa Milano, worked on his behalf. Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights legend, stumped for him, providing a significant boost to an unknown candidate. Other big-name Democrats, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, bestowed their endorsements. Journalists from around the world covered his every move, essentially giving him his own press corps. Democrats were counting on Ossoff, running in a special election in suburban Atlanta, to demonstrate that the party could win in the age of Trump.
This skinny son of Georgia came to embody his party’s hopes. As his fan base swelled, he became something of a folk hero, whether he was talking to The New York Times or playfully brandishing a lightsaber to mock an attack ad that tried to turn a college musical performance against him.
His supporters were dejected, but Ossoff’s 2017 campaign did distinguish itself. What started as a quixotic effort to replace Republican Rep. Tom Price, who resigned to become Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services, attracted more than 12,000 volunteers, many of them first timers activated by their aversion to Trump. It became the most expensive congressional contest in history, and it was tantalizingly close: Ossoff lost what had been a ruby-red district by less than 4 percentage points the year after Price captured 62 percent of the vote, foreshadowing Democrats’ 2018 gains among white, well-heeled, college-educated suburbanites.
And it turned “Jon Ossoff” into a household name in much of his home state.
A scant three years later, Ossoff is, quite improbably, again at the center of the political world.
“Jon’s 2017 campaign sparked a flame that is burning brighter than ever, in Georgia and across the country,” Lewis, who died in July, said when Ossoff declared his candidacy for the Senate last year. “Like the many thousands Jon has already organized and inspired, I am ready to work tirelessly to elect him.”
Ossoff is one of two Democrats competing in two runoff elections against two Republican sitting senators in the same state. If, on January 5, Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock succeed in unseating Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively, the Senate will be tied at 50. The body’s president – soon to be Vice President Kamala Harris – would break deadlocks, effectively granting Democrats majority control. If one or both of the Democrats lose, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will maintain his stranglehold on the chamber.
In other words, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Few candidates in history have run for federal office in such consequential elections. Fewer still have done so without ever having held public office.
There is no shortage of candidates who lost repeatedly only to run again. But usually, they first served in elected or appointed positions. Some eventually won. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a California governor who ran for president twice before winning in 1980. William Jennings Bryan lost three presidential general elections, twice as a Democrat and once as the nominee of the Populist Party, noted political scientist Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He also lost a Senate race. Bryan, however, had been elected twice to Congress and, after his final campaign, served as U.S. secretary of state. At the congressional level, Ornstein said the closest comparison to Ossoff might be former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, who narrowly lost his first general-election race in 1970, was appointed to the seat in 1974, lost in the next primary, then finally won outright in the 1976 general election. But Metzenbaum, too, had previous experience in elected office, having served in the Ohio legislature. And the stakes in his races, Ornstein noted, were not nearly as high as they are for Ossoff.
Because they both have to win for the Democrats to gain control of the Senate, Ossoff and Warnock are running as a team. In some ways, their strengths are complementary.
Like Ossoff, Warnock has never held political office. He is well known in Georgia as the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the pulpit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Warnock, 51, has used his famous perch to work statewide on behalf of civil rights and social justice. In a state in which about 30 percent of registered voters are African American, and about 47 percent are people of color, that could be pivotal.
“One of the reasons Ossoff fell short when he ran for Congress in 2017 is, he didn’t get the type of Black turnout that he needed,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Now, with Warnock as something like a running mate, it may help with Black turnout.” He added that could be particularly helpful in the southern part of the state, where Warnock grew up and where turnout among Black residents has dropped in the post-Obama era.
Ossoff has other strengths. For one thing, he appeals to young voters. At 33, he would be the Senate’s youngest member and its only millennial. He has a strong organization and proven strength in the Atlanta suburbs.
He also seems to have an innate ability for politics. Even as a newbie in 2017, the former college a-capella singer put together an impressive campaign.
“One of the things that Ossoff did was organize. They had people making phone calls, they had people knocking on the doors. It looked like he found almost every possible Democratic voter that he could find,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. “The turnout in that special election rivaled what you would expect to see in a general election in a midterm year. That was what garnered all of the attention….It was the narrative of ‘this is a competitive guy running for Newt Gingrich’s seat’ that made it so competitive.”
Ossoff landed on national TV and made the cover of New York, which dubbed the race “The Trump-Hate Weather Vane” and described him as “a cross between Gumby and Justin Trudeau…who speaks slowly and deliberately in a way that can remind you of Barack Obama.” (The article also said that cadence made him boring.) He was a savvy fundraiser, raking in an astonishing $23 million. His catchy signs and T-shirts exhorted people to “Vote your Ossoff.”
Ossoff developed a passion for politics as a 17-year-old intern for Lewis. When he is interviewed on TV from his home, Ossoff likes to stand next to a framed editorial cartoon of Lewis, who was brutally beaten during a 1965 voting-rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, lying face down above an abyss as Black people walk across his back on their way to a voting booth. The cartoon, by Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is titled “The Bridge.”
Following his internship, Ossoff worked as an aide to Rep. Hank Johnson, another Georgia Democrat, during and after attending Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. But after five years on Capitol Hill, he grew weary of the influence of lobbyists and special interests, said one campaign adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. So, he decamped to the London School of Economics to earn a masters’ degree. There, Ossoff reconnected with the founder of a documentary film company named Insight TWI, for “The World Investigates,” for whom he had worked one summer. In 2013, Ossoff became the company’s CEO, a position he still holds. He considers himself an investigative journalist.
When Trump tapped Price to be HHS secretary, Ossoff saw an opening.
Much has been made about how Georgia has changed electorally in recent years because of in-migration from the North and a massive voter-registration drive, which expanded representation among people of color and young adults, led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Nowhere was the transformation more apparent than in the election last month, when Biden’s slim victory was the first by a Democratic presidential candidate in 28 years.
Although Ossoff fared well with about 48 percent of the vote, he received about 100,000 fewer votes than Biden. While it’s difficult to ascertain why, Coleman suspects many Republicans in suburban Atlanta split their tickets, voting for Biden, but also Perdue. “I don’t like Trump, but give me a Republican I can vote for,” he said.
Without Trump on the ticket next month, those Republicans might choose to return fully to the fold. That assessment is complicated by Trump’s disproved proclamations that Georgia’s vote count (and, apparently, its two recounts) was fraudulent and by some of his acolytes’ suggestions that Republicans protest by sitting out the Senate runoffs. At a December 7 rally in Valdosta, GA, Trump continued his tirade about how he had been cheated out of a win in November and assailed Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, for refusing to overturn the results. Perdue and Loeffler stood by, something of a sideshow, as the crowd chanted, “Stop the Steal.”
It’s always tough to knock off an incumbent, but Ossoff and Warnock are trying to do so in a state where Republicans historically win runoffs. That isn’t surprising since Georgia’s unique runoff system was established by segregationists to prevent Black voters from solidifying behind one candidate while white voters split their allegiance in a multi-candidate race.
Warnock’s race illustrates exactly what the segregationists had in mind. Last month, he won 33 percent of the votes, while Loeffler and another Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, garnered 26 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Warnock was the top vote-getter among 20 candidates competing to fill the remaining time in a seat Loeffler was appointed to one year ago when Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons. But because no candidate received a clear majority, Warnock and Loeffler will compete in a runoff.
In the regularly scheduled election for Perdue’s seat, the incumbent won 49.7 percent of the vote and Ossoff captured 47.9 percent. A Libertarian candidate won 2.3 percent, effectively triggering that runoff.
Because of their import, the simultaneous races are “on unprecedented territory,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor for the Cook Political Report. “There is nothing comparable to these two runoffs.”
That’s especially true for Ossoff, who is trying to mount a comeback following his first defeat three years ago. It takes “grit and determination,” observed AEI’s Ornstein, for any candidate who has lost a race to rebound and run again, with the eyes of the nation on him each time.
Three years ago, Democrats placed their faith in an ambitious, young Georgian running for an open House seat. They hoped an Ossoff victory would be a harbinger of electoral success, a sign the party could overcome Trump’s upset win the year before. Such a victory would have been symbolic, changing nothing on a national scale. In the end, it didn’t matter very much, as Democrats went on to wrest control of the House of Representatives in 2018.
This time, the expectation is that either Ossoff and Warnock both will win, or both will lose. Voters are unlikely to split their tickets. Turnout will be determinative.
And with the Senate and Biden’s presidency on the line, the results surely will matter.