CHAMBLEE, Ga.—Jon Ossoff has become the face of the Left’s resistance against Donald Trump, but his campaign to flip a traditionally Republican congressional district here is charting a notably centrist course—at least in its messaging.
Even as he keeps a steady calendar of events aimed at energizing traditional Democratic strongholds of millennials and minority groups, Ossoff is drawing support from across the aisle with his plans to boost high-tech jobs, shrink the deficit, and reduce wasteful spending. Voters in the 6th District, in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, haven’t elected a Democrat to the House in 40 years but backed Trump by a single point in 2016.
The strategy might offer a blueprint for the party’s challengers who run next year in similarly affluent, well-educated suburbs on how to entice independents and even moderate Republicans without alienating the liberal base.
“What’s working here is my focus on local economic development and accountability in Washington,” Ossoff said during a 13-minute interview in which he never mentioned Trump, his opponent, or either political party by name. “I grew up in this community and have always believed that it’s not a particularly partisan community.”
Public polling and interviews with Georgia strategists from both parties all indicate Ossoff, a former congressional staffer and investigative journalist, is a slight favorite in the June 20 runoff, in no small part because of his crossover appeal. Two recent surveys showed him grabbing more than half of independent voters and a slice of Republicans.
At a small event last week in the campaign’s Marietta office, a few self-described “Republicans for Ossoff”—including one who lives just a dozen doors down from Republican candidate Karen Handel—gathered for a discussion that offered a glimpse of how the president complicates the race.
Each did not support Trump and were now looking for a check on the president, something they didn’t think a member of his party could offer.
“In a normal year, we would be voting Republican; we would be voting for Karen,” said Dollene Quinn, a Roswell resident who said she broke a decades-long loyalty to the GOP last November. “But this isn’t a normal year.”
And Ossoff, they agreed, was all the more palatable because he is moderate and doesn’t repeat “the Nancy Pelosi-type of information.”
But their defections have drawn the ire of the district’s Republican core. Some had to chain their Ossoff yard signs to trees and add GPS trackers after multiple thefts. Another was bitten by a dog while canvassing for Ossoff in Alpharetta as its owner accused her of being a “communist.”
Trump has left Handel in a precarious position between her base and these crucial swing voters, who helped reelect former Republican Rep. Tom Price by 23 points last year but nearly swung the district for Hillary Clinton at the presidential level thanks to their distaste for Trump.
Republicans say Ossoff is masquerading as a moderate while running a campaign financed by the Left. But they’re split on whether Trump or Handel should be blamed for the close race. Privately, GOP strategists complain that Handel’s campaign has been poorly executed, pointing to her lack of public events (her campaign did not respond to multiple requests to meet by National Journal) and a lackluster message touting her experience in various elected offices.
“Being a career politician just doesn’t move Republican primary voters,” said one Georgia Republican strategist, granted anonymity to assess the race candidly. “It doesn’t really move general-election swing voters either.”
It’s a problem Ossoff, whose base is indelibly energized by Trump’s election, doesn’t appear to have. Dozens of supporters packed an early-vote rally Friday in Tucker with Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who once employed Ossoff as an intern.
In interviews, several supporters there listed liberal parts of his platform that appealed to them—confronting climate change, and supporting women’s health and the LGBT movement. But in his brief speech, Ossoff didn’t once mention Trump or take aim at any usual red-meat issues, and still elicited an enthusiastic response from supporters, many of whom waited after the event to shake his hand and take selfies.
“It is uniting Democrats, independents, and Republicans,” Ossoff said of his campaign, drawing cheers from the crowd. “This is not about Democrats versus Republicans.”
Trump is a significant motivating factor for Democrats in the district, allowing Ossoff to appeal to the middle with ads focused mainly on themes of government accountability and cutting waste. And Democratic outside groups have followed suit. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC ads have largely attacked Handel’s fiscal record while she was secretary of state.
“He has all the benefits of being anti-Trump without any of the liabilities,” Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake said.
Some of Ossoff’s advantage is financial. He purchased $8 million of TV time for the runoff and had a four-week head start, compared to Handel’s ad buy of just more than $2 million, according to recent data obtained by National Journal.
The campaign also translated its resources into a massive ground game. Ossoff campaign manager Keenan Pontoni said they created an “initial field target universe” three times the size of a normal House battleground, only to increase it by 40 percent more after the primary.
With the resources to expand beyond simply persuadable or high-turnout voters, the campaign will have likely canvassed a half-million doors by the end of the race.
But Handel has $7 million in help from the Congressional Leadership Fund in targeting swing voters, both on the air and in the field. The group intends to knock on 300,000 doors, more than two-thirds of which house “soft Republican” voters, CLF executive director Corry Bliss said. Meanwhile, Republican messaging has tried to remind GOP-leaning voters of the national stakes of the race, hitting Ossoff for his out-of-state donations and liberal allegiance.
“We’ve done extensive survey work in that universe,” Bliss said. “Three-to-1, people want Paul Ryan, not Nancy Pelosi. They want Republicans in control of Congress.”
But some Democrats are already considering what a victory in Georgia could mean for November 2018—if other candidates can capitalize on favorable headwinds while building a coalition with a positive, local message.
“You can’t just be anti-Donald Trump to win this congressional district or any congressional district across the country,” Georgia Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said.