Jon Ossoff, who narrowly lost a high-profile Georgia congressional special election in 2017, is running for one of two U.S. Senate seats up in the state in 2020. Ossoff will be challenging incumbent David Perdue, a dollar-store magnate who’s held the office since 2015. The early retirement of Sen. Johnny Isakson has opened a second seat, which will be filled in a special election in 2020.
Ossoff starts the race as the frontrunner. Georgia’s leading democratic figure, Stacey Abrams, has declined to run, and Ossoff told The Intercept he would not have challenged her in a primary if she had decided to make a bid. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat who now represents the congressional district Ossoff lost in, also hasn’t ruled out a run, but may make a bid for the open seat, meaning Ossoff and McBath would run as a ticket of sorts. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not endorsed in the race; Ossoff said he spoke to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer this summer but did not get a commitment of support.
Ossoff’s 2017 race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District broke records for spending and organizing, and for the number of small donors involved, though it almost never happened. The seat opened up when Tom Price was nominated to become the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, a position he has since vacated under a cloud of scandal, replaced by a pharmaceutical executive. Price had won reelection in 2016 by more than 20 points, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was uninterested in competing in the race, believing that the most likely scenario was that two Republicans would finish at the top of the first round of voting, meaning no Democrat would make it into the general election.
Ossoff decided to run anyway, and Democrats from around the country, bereft after the election of Donald Trump, began pouring money into his race and volunteering to phone bank. Even though Price had carried it easily, they reasoned, Trump had only barely outpaced Hillary Clinton in the district.
The tsunami of support that came Ossoff’s way eventually forced the national party to engage in the race, and Ossoff came within two percentage points of winning the race outright in the first round, finishing first with 48.1 percent of the vote. But, because he was shy of 50 percent, the race went into a runoff, which Republican Karen Handel won narrowly.
Or, at least, the final results declared Handel to be a winner. The electronic voting system in Georgia was unverifiable, and Republicans officials, in the face of court orders, destroyed and scrubbed multiple servers in an alarming destruction of evidence of possible vote-tampering. Ossoff said that he plans to take GOP election-tampering seriously and will be in court ahead of the election to do what’s possible to judicially monitor election officials. He’s been endorsed by Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who put his body on the line for the Voting Rights Act, and he said he and Lewis plan to visit every corner of the state and will make voter registration a major part of the campaign, along with educating voters in how to defend the franchise. “What I can do is assure you that we will be taking this as seriously as anything,” Ossoff said.
On the left, Ossoff’s 2017 campaign became a stand-in for the milquetoast, corporate centrism that has so often held the party back from pursuing a genuinely progressive agenda. And it’s true that Ossoff ran a tightly scripted, perhaps overly disciplined campaign that did not lean into progressive priorities like Medicare for All.
But that analysis ignores some interesting elements of his race, namely that it organized the largest volunteer field operation in the history of congressional campaigns, with some 13,000 volunteers knocking doors, and more than 400,000 donors contributing small amounts that added up to more than $20 million. The district is also quite wealthy, with no serious history of working-class organizing on which to base a democratic socialist program.
Democrats have become increasingly competitive in such districts around the country, while becoming increasingly less competitive in rural districts dominated by white working-class voters. Democrats, then, if they want to run a broad politics centered on class, either need to figure out how to win poor, rural white districts, or figure out how to elect progressive — though not socialist — candidates in suburban districts.
While Ossoff is not a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, he is far more progressive than the Blue Dog Democrats the DCCC has been fond of running in recent years. A House majority where Ossoff represented the right-most flank would be far more progressive than the majority that exists today, or the one that passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.
Ossoff said that he plans to run a more freewheeling campaign this time around. “Look, I was 29 years old when Donald Trump was elected president and, like millions of people, rather than despair, I stood up and did something about it,” he said. “The national Republican Party all the way to the president himself, the vice president, the speaker of the House made my destruction their singular objective, spent tens of millions of dollars funded by anonymous GOP donors funded by the private prison industry, funded by the fossil fuel industry, smearing me on the airwaves in my home state. And having been through that, I couldn’t care less what they say about me. Bring it on.”
That doesn’t mean he’ll be endorsing Medicare for All or the entirety of the Green New Deal, but the criticism of Ossoff as a corporate candidate chafes him, because corporate America spent more to beat Ossoff than they’ve ever spent on any candidate in a House race anywhere, ever.
“My campaign in 2017 shattered fundraising records. We have nearly half a million donors who gave an average contributions of $21. This was not the national Democratic Party deciding to fund this campaign,” he said. “My response to those critics is, OK, look at how I built a grassroots volunteer corps of more than 13,000 to run the largest volunteer-based get-out-the-vote program in U.S. House campaign history. … Do you think that the fossil fuel and private prison industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and every corporate-funded Republican Super PAC in the country spent tens of millions of dollars attacking me because they believed I was going to support their agenda? They recognized I was a threat to their stranglehold on the legislative process.”
Since then, he has campaigned with McBath and then Abrams, while returning to the documentary film company he had helped run before his congressional campaign. His professional background, he said, should persuade some critics on the left that he’s not a neoliberal squish but “someone who has worked as an investigative journalist, leading a team that has taken on powerful corporations, corrupt politicians, death squads, ISIS war criminals,” he said. “Someone who, when I was a national security aide, investigated mass surveillance of American citizens, abuse of American citizens, defense contractors. These forces knew that I threatened them, and they spent tens of millions of dollars to stop me and they barely did. And I’m still standing, and I’m ready to fight.”
Ossoff said he’s open to ending the filibuster and would support statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, but there were elements of the Green New Deal he does not support, such as the abolition of private health insurance. “I commend Sen. [Ed] Markey and Rep. [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez for elevating this issue and for linking it to infrastructure,” he said. “My view is that we need a very focused approach. … Look, it’s not just climate change. There is a broader environmental and ecological crisis that’s unfolding before us. Mass extinction. It is snowing plastic in the Arctic. The oceans are dying. The coral reefs are dying. We are in the midst of an environmental catastrophe and responding to it requires a level of ambition that should match that of the New Deal and the Manhattan Project. And it is an opportunity to revolutionize our infrastructure. But do I think, for example, that the critical path to solving climate change involves abolishing the private health insurance market? No.” (The Green New Deal includes a provision calling for universal health care.)
“This country is in crisis, and it’s not just about Trump,” he continued. “It’s a crisis of political corruption. And we need now to mount an all-out assault on corruption in American politics to save the republic. When nine out of 10 Americans support universal background checks and Congress refuses because it is bought by the [National Rifle Association], that is corruption. When Congress refuses to crack down on price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies and tries to throw millions of Americans with preexisting conditions off consumer protections because they’re bought by the drug and insurance companies, that is corruption. When the federal government silences its own environmental scientists because the findings of those scientists threaten fossil fuel industry profits, that is corruption.”