What the Democratic Party Should Learn From Jon Ossoff

The Georgia congressional candidate's strong showing is a test case for the party on how to run in red districts. But are Democrats paying close enough attention?

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Jon Ossoff’s remarkable performance in Tuesday’s special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has Americans across the political spectrum abuzz on what this means for the future of the Democratic Party moving forward in the era of Trump.

It’s a particularly potent campaign because it speaks to a prominent debate in progressive circles at the moment: “reaching out” to Trump voters in order to better “understand” them versus being assertive with a liberal platform, regardless.

It’s amusing for me, as a liberal raised in Texas—as it may be for other Southern liberals—to see many of our progressive peers push forward a claim that broad economic messaging, at the expense of “identity politics,” is going to win over Trump voters (i.e., white working-class men), many of whom already acknowledge their dismay at the proposed loss of federal programs that benefit them but nevertheless stand by Trump precisely because of his racism.

And it is frustrating for many of us Southern liberals to see this “economic anxiety of Trump voters” narrative be trotted out by some in the progressive movement as a guidepost for future campaigning when we know the central issue at play is fear and loathing based on racism, sexism, and every flavor of bigotry out there in the great American wilderness.

If the real issue isn’t economic messaging, why work so hard to turn conservative and moderate voters on it? Ossoff, as a Southern liberal, gets this. He knows voters are more likely to respond to liberal candidates who project strength in their value system than liberals who pander to the moving goalposts of conservatives. His race is a fantastic test case for evaluating how to be proud of liberal values and use that to success in the most conservative areas of America.

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has not seen a Democrat elected since 1976, and following the stunning victory of a young Newt Gingrich, two years later, it has reliably gone for Republicans by enormous margins since. Tom Price, who vacated the seat in February after his confirmation as Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, had handily won in the past six election cycles, including a thumping 23.2 percent margin of victory in November.

Thirty-year-old Ossoff, on the other hand, is pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, and pro-Obamacare. His previous experience includes five years as a congressional staffer and work as an investigative documentary filmmaker. He has no military experience, he didn’t attend college in Georgia, and despite his roots in the district (his family still lives there), he currently resides just outside its boundaries to accommodate his girlfriend’s medical studies at Emory University. His Jewish upbringing adds a tinge of complexity in light of recent anti-Semitic incidents across the country (inspired by Trump’s rise), and his last name led the Republican mayor of Roswell, Jere Wood, to wonder aloud if conservative voters would ask: “Is he Muslim? Is he Lebanese? Is he Indian?”

On paper, at least, the conventional wisdom would rule out Ossoff as a formidable candidate, but the current political environment and Ossoff’s extraordinary communication skills have shaped his campaign into a rallying cry for progressives nationwide. In exactly 90 days from the announcement of his candidacy on January 5, Ossoff raised an astounding $8.3 million, a record and 18 times more than the most well-known Republican candidate in the race, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who infamously was fired from the Susan Komen Foundation for trying to change the nonprofit’s longstanding policy of funding Planned Parenthood.

To be sure, it helps when you’re one of just a handful of House races in the national spotlight rather than being lost in a sea of 435 elections, and so, too, does Ossoff benefit from the overwhelming and ongoing backlash against just about everything that touches the Trump administration.

What’s different about Ossoff’s campaign—and what has emerged as its biggest strength—is the way it deviates from traditional Democratic politics in conservative districts.

In past similar situations, many strategists would claim the smart play would usually have an attractive, charismatic candidate like Ossoff work for the middle ground, convincing conservative voters that he’s not a liberal threat to their way of life, and indeed, he has made some gestures to assure Republicans in his district that he cares about the nuances of lightning-rod issues like Obamacare and immigration reform.

But Ossoff has also been unapologetic about his liberal views, refusing to pull punches in front of conservative voters on topics ranging from climate change to abortion rights. His speaking style on the stump has been called “professorial,” with commentators frequently comparing it to Obama, and a slogan used by his campaign cuts right to the heart of the current national political climate: “Make Trump Furious.”

The strategy worked. In a crowded field of eighteen candidates, including eleven Republicans and four Democratic alternatives to Ossoff’s campaign, he still managed to win 48.1 percent of the vote, not too far shy of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. His nearest competitor, Handel, finished with a distant 19.8 percent.

Of course, the concern of many Democrats is that with only two candidates competing in the runoff on June 20—Ossoff and Handel—the young liberal will surely lose to the experienced conservative in a district long dominated by Republicans. Some of them will surely write this off as a waste of time and resources, and that would be an enormous mistake.

The Democratic Party needs to wake up and realize the incredible opportunity present in Ossoff’s campaign. This is a moment when national party leadership—still dogged by accusations of ineptitude and elitism, however unfair—can bring the disparate parts of the progressive movement together against Trump’s agenda. In Ossoff, they have a young, attractive candidate with proud liberal values who isn’t afraid to take the fight directly to Trump.

Even if Ossoff loses—and there’s a good chance he will—keeping the race close, and continuing to demonstrate the weakness of even supposedly “strong” Republican districts, will further inspire progressives to get into the fight. Contesting every single district with the full backing of the Democratic Party will assuage jaded progressives who are tired of seeing their constituencies treated like lost causes.

We need to start operating from a place of strength, and the only way to do that is in asserting that our values are worth the fight, wherever we may reside. 


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