Jon Ossoff Aims for the Middle in Georgia

With an energized base, the Democrat is courting independents and Republicans in this month’s closely watched special election.

Jon Ossoff and fiancee Alisha Kramer campaigning in Sandy Springs, Ga., on May 11
AP Photo/David Goldman
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
June 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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