The Democrats’ $8 Million Man: What would a Jon Ossoff victory mean?

“People would take an Ossoff victory as a sign of Democratic momentum.”
Jon Ossoff

Photograph by Dustin Chambers/The Jon Ossoff Campaign

Last week I was in Los Angeles, a good 2,000 miles removed from metro Atlanta. Yet several times, when I told a stranger in a shop or restaurant where I was from, I was astonished to be asked if I thought Jon Ossoff could win the special election. As I arrived back at Hartsfield-Jackson, there on a newsstand was the 30-year-old congressional candidate on the cover of New York magazine.

Clearly, the race for Georgia’s 6th District is attracting widespread attention—and no wonder. Ossoff is the first Democratic candidate in a generation who has the money and momentum to win former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s old district, which boasts the wealthiest and best-educated constituency in the state. More importantly, however, his candidacy is perceived as a bellwether for the next phase of national politics in the Trump era.

“The fact that people are paying attention to races they otherwise wouldn’t indicates that Democrats and even some moderate Republicans are eager to send a pretty strong message to Trump and the GOP establishment,” said Emory professor Michael Leo Owens, who specializes in urban politics.

“People would take an Ossoff victory as a sign of Democratic momentum,” Owens added.

Democrats were already encouraged this week by a special congressional election in Kansas, where Republican Ron Estes won the race for state treasurer by single digits (52.5 percent of the vote, compared to Democrat James Thompson’s 45.7 percent) in a district that has traditionally voted heavily GOP.

That race, however, hadn’t received as much scrutiny as the one in Georgia’s 6th, largely because the Democratic candidate had little political experience and wasn’t able to raise the kind of money that has been pouring into the race in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. At last count, Ossoff, a former staffer for Congressman Hank Johnson, has raised around $8.5 million, largely from out-of-state donors.

Conservative groups have likewise spent liberally to defeat him—so far, the National Rifle Association; the National Republican Congressional Committee; and Prosperity Action, a political action committee founded by House Speaker Paul Ryan, have bought at least $4 million of local TV and radio airtime in an effort to brand the Democrat as a Nancy Pelosi-backed liberal.

That’s on top of the money being spent by the leading GOP candidates (there are 11 of them), much of which also has been used to target Ossoff (one of five Democrats in the race), who’s been polling north of 40 percent. Even without knowing whether the April 18 vote will result in a runoff, this is already one of the costliest congressional elections in recent Georgia history.

“If Ossoff wins, Democrats would seize on that as an indication that the midterm elections have already begun—and Trump is losing,” said Kennesaw State University politics professor Kerwin Swint, referring to the next round of congressional elections in 2018.

In politics, mere perception can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Winning such a closely watched race could help embolden congressional Democrats; persuade potential candidates to challenge GOP incumbents; and loosen the purse strings of liberal donors across the country. Losing the 6th District could spook many Republican office-holders into distancing themselves from Trump and make GOP congressfolk less eager to back the president’s agenda.

Owens and Swint agree that a similar effect could be felt even if Ossoff loses by a small margin, since the district’s political demographics run roughly 60/40 in favor of Republicans. However, a political operative familiar with Ossoff’s campaign strategy said early voting is running about 49 percent Democratic.

According to Swint, that likely won’t be good enough to secure an Ossoff victory. “I don’t see how the GOP lose a runoff,” he said.

But it could depend on his runoff opponent. If it’s Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray, a vocal Trump booster, the race would come down to a referendum on the president—who got only 48 percent of the vote there against Hillary Clinton. If it’s ex-Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, she could siphon off some moderate voters, but is unlikely to galvanize diehard conservatives.

As district voters on Friday headed in to their final day of early voting, data showed GOP voters—or people who have voted in Republican primaries in the past—casting more ballots. Keep your eyes on this race.