It’s been 25 years since the 6th Congressional District was redrawn from rural west Georgia to the northern Atlanta suburbs, an area that was to become the launch pad for the Republican Revolution of 1994 and the political stronghold of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Long the wealthiest district in the state, with more than its share of corporate headquarters, the 6th had spent nearly four decades under unchallenged GOP control when Congressman Tom Price left the seat vacant this February to become U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
So what to make of new polling that shows Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat who’s never before run for public office, has as much voter support as the top three Republican candidates combined? It’s no wonder that some observers view the wide-open race in the heavily Republican 6th—the special election is on April 18, the runoff in June—as an effective referendum on the already troubled Trump presidency.
How worried are Republicans about Ossoff, a young man whose name recognition was non-existent three months ago? Well, last Thursday, when Karen Handel, the presumed GOP front-runner and former Georgia Secretary of State, released her first campaign ad, she chose to ignore her fellow Republican candidates, instead attacking the leading Democrat. And this week, Johns Creek City Councilman Bob Gray, who’s polling neck-and-neck with Handel, changed his Facebook cover image to a photograph of himself surrounded by supporters and holding a hand-written sign reading, “Bring on Ossoff.”
Tall, slender, and boyish, with a shock of dark hair, Ossoff could credibly pass for a college student—think Ivy League—or at least a post-grad. But his youthful appearance is belied by the seriousness with which he discusses issues of interest to his well-heeled district. While he first attracted attention with the online tagline “Make Trump Furious,” Ossoff explained to Atlanta magazine that “this campaign isn’t about what’s happening in the White House. It’s about getting things done and growing this area into an economic powerhouse that’s the envy of the South.”
Ossoff may be new to voters, but he’s familar to Democratic insiders; he worked as a high school intern for Congressman John Lewis, whom he calls a mentor, and in the Washington staff of Rep. Hank Johnson. His educational background—Paideia, Georgetown University, and the London School of Economics—is impressive. And he has solid business credentials as CEO of Insight TWI, a London-based company that produces TV documentaries exposing government corruption for the BBC, PBS, and other major international outlets.
From the moment the race began, Democrats had their money on Ossoff—lots of it. Following a D.C. fundraiser last week that was co-chaired by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer, Ossoff has banked upwards of $3.5 million in donations. A weekend visit to his Marietta campaign office—he also has offices in Chamblee and Roswell—revealed a highly professional operation successful at mobilizing scores of volunteers.
According to a Clout Research telephone poll taken last week, Ossoff leads a crazily crowded field—11 Republicans, five Democrats, two independents, and a Libertarian—by double digits. Forty-one percent of 625 likely voters polled across the top of Cobb, Fulton, and DeKalb counties said they favored Ossoff, while Handel and Gray hover a half-point apart around 16 percent. Judson Hill, a former state senator who left his seat to run for U.S. Senate against eventual winner David Perdue, polls well behind at about 9 percent.
If one accepts that telephone polls tend to reflect the preferences of older voters, Ossoff’s standing—as a visibly Millennial candidate—would appear even more remarkable.
But Democrats shouldn’t get too excited about these numbers. Clearly, the many Republican candidates are splitting the GOP vote in a district that still tips red. And, unless Ossoff can somehow surmount 50 percent in the April 18 election, he’ll be facing the full might of a regrouped Republican Party heading into the June 20 runoff against the newly anointed GOP standard-bearer. (Unlike a regular election, the 6th District race does not have party primaries, meaning that if no candidate tops 50 percent in the special election, the top two vote-getters—regardless of party affiliation—must battle it out in a runoff.)
At this point, the GOP attacks on Ossoff have been of an especially tired and partisan nature, the message of which boils down to “Hey guys, this kid’s a liberal!” Handel’s first TV ad tags her foe as “Nancy Pelosi’s hand-picked candidate,” and both she and Gray have made ominous references to Ossoff’s “ties to Al Jazeera”—his company has made films for the Qatar-based news network—undoubtedly intended to alarm voters frightened by Islamic-sounding names. A March 1 salvo by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with GOP leadership, tried to paint Ossoff as an immature frat boy with college-age clips of the candidate dressed as Han Solo, which arguably helped him with name recognition more than it hurt.
If the partisan rhetoric sounds heated now, just wait till April 19, when the race narrows to Ossoff and, presumably, either Handel or Gray. If it’s the latter, the contest will almost certainly become a referendum on Trump. An unabashed Trump fan who calls himself a “conservative outsider,” Gray appears to hail from the far right of the GOP—he supports abolishing the IRS, advocates gun ownership as a defense against “tyranny,” and peppers his social media with calls to “drain the swamp.”
While stressing that he’s “not a bomb-thrower,” Ossoff acknowledged that some of his support stems from his pledge to be a backstop to Trump’s policies. “There are many in the district—both Democrats and moderate Republicans—who are concerned that the president isn’t competent or honest and that he may act recklessly,” he said. Trump won the district by a meager 1.5 points (although last’s week’s poll places the president’s approval rating there at around 49 percent, about 10 points higher than the national average).
Even if Handel is the designated opponent, the race is still guaranteed to turn ugly. She will likely step up her charge that he’s a “lightweight liberal,” and Ossoff will be pressured to counter Handel’s appeal to women by spotlighting her attacks on Planned Parenthood and her resignation from a top job at Susan G. Komen over her role in a 2012 public-relations fiasco that erupted when the breast cancer foundation zeroed out its contributions to the family planning nonprofit.
Ossoff already has money and an enthusiastic base of support. The question, ultimately, is whether he has the grit to fight the Republican Party on its home turf and whether a district that nearly went for Hillary Clinton is willing to send a young go-getter to Washington to stand up to Donald Trump—even if he’s got a “D” behind his name.