The day Donald Trump’s travel ban went into effect, Jon Ossoff – the 30-year-old former congressional aide running for the House seat vacated by new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price – showed up at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport alongside two of his old bosses, Reps. Hank Johnson and John Lewis, to meet with Georgians detained under the executive order.
Ossoff tells Rolling Stone he went to the airport that night “over the objections of some political consultants who told me, ‘A Democrat running in a tough district shouldn’t take a stand like that,’ because this is the wrong moment in history to shy away from standing on principal out of political fear.”
That’s the kind of tough liberal stance the 200,000 or so people who’ve now donated in support of Ossoff’s long-shot bid – most of those out-of-staters, and many of them readers of the liberal website Daily Kos, which has been hyping Ossoff’s campaign – want to see. But it is one of the few times Ossoff has taken any sort of risk.
Nationally, Ossoff’s candidacy has been buoyed by the same swell of activism that has helped jam congressional phone lines, inundate mailrooms and flood the streets of cities around the country since Trump’s election. But voters in the district Ossoff hopes to win on Tuesday are considerably more conservative than those contributing to his campaign.
In November, Georgia’s sixth district broke for Trump by less than two points. The district, whose boundaries were redrawn by the state’s Republican governor and legislature after the 2010 census, is so reliably red that GOP state Sen. Fran Miller rated Ossoff’s chances this way, days before the election: “I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. … They were not drawn for that purpose.”
Tuesday’s special election in the affluent northern Atlanta suburbs may answer the question: Can any amount of money win back a badly gerrymandered district, or will Democrats be hopelessly stymied until at least 2020, when a new census would give them the chance to even the playing field?
Democrats around the country have heaved more than $8.3 million into Ossoff’s campaign coffers, breaking the record for a special election in Georgia. (By comparison, his Republican rivals, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and former state Sen. Judson Hill, have raised $463,000 and $473,000, respectively.)
His impressive haul is like other recent Democratic causes célèbres in that it says less about Ossoff himself than it does about Democratic voters’ desperation to feel like they’re doing something after ceding the White House, both chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court for a generation to conservatives this past November.
At a time when a generic Democrat is out-polling a generic Republican by an average of six points nationwide, Ossoff is about as generic as they come. He is conventionally attractive and speaks almost exclusively in platitudes. His resume is thin. His platform is boilerplate. Despite it all – or maybe because of it – he’s polling higher than his three closest Republican rivals combined, in a district that a Democrat hasn’t come within 20 points of winning since the 1970s.
It will be a coup if Democrats can capture the seat, but no polls show him pulling in the 50 percent of the vote he would need to win the seat outright. If no one candidate hits that threshold, the two closest will go head-to-head in a June runoff, and if that happens, Ossoff will likely have much more difficulty defeating the default Republican candidate in his deeply red district.
That’s not to say it can’t happen. “It’s entirely possible that in a special election, and having raised that kind of money, that a Democrat could sneak away and win this race in a district where Trump has always had trouble,” says David Daley, the author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, about the unprecedented – and enormously successful – Republican effort to pack state houses and redraw district maps after the 2010 census.
Whether the money spent on Ossoff was a wise allocation of resources is another question altogether. Even with funds and enthusiasm on Democrats’ side, Daley says, “the district lines present a serious and significant structural problem, and Democrats could spend $8.3 million on this race and [even if they win] turn around and hand the district back to Republicans in 2018. And if so, what have they invested all that money in?”
“That money could go a long way toward investing in the kinds of essential state legislative races and governors’ races that will be responsible for redrawing the district lines after the 2020 census,” Daley notes.
Ossoff’s campaign already bares many of the hallmarks of other costly post-Trump failures on the left, like Foster Campbell’s Louisiana Senate campaign (raised $2.5 million in largely from out-of-state donors, lost by 22 points) and Jill Stein’s recount efforts (raised $7.1 million, found just 131 uncounted Trump votes in Wisconsin).
If Ossoff loses on Tuesday – or even if he wins with less than 50 percent of the vote – progressives will likely end up embroiled in the inverse of the debate they had last week, after Democrat James Thompson narrowly lost a special election in Kansas. Thompson, a civil rights lawyer, came within striking distance of the Republican candidate, Ron Estes, losing by seven points in a district that the last Republican candidate had won by 32, and which Donald Trump won by 27 points in November.
Since that surprisingly suspenseful election, liberals have argued over whether the Democrat could have won had he received just a bit more financial support. Estes out-raised Thompson $459,000 to $292,000, and a few weeks before the election, the Kansas Democratic Party turned down a Thompson campaign request for $20,000. A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which also did not contribute financially to Thompson’s bid, has said its help would have backfired by associating Thompson with national Democrats. Bernie Sanders has said the party “should have put more resources into that election.”
Ossoff may well be struggling mightily with how to not alienate conservative voters in his district while remaining palatable enough to progressives that money he may need for a runoff continues flowing in – but one detects no whiff of it while speaking with him. He really is, as New York magazine recently described him, “a radically boring person to talk or listen to.” He watches his words so carefully that you start to wonder why anyone, of any party, would choose to send this exceedingly inoffensive, frustratingly bland individual to advocate for their interests in Congress.
One of Ossoff’s major selling points is his affiliation with Insight TWI, the London-based documentary film company of which he is CEO. His campaign website boasts that “as a journalist, [Ossoff] learned how to expose and fight the abuse of power,” citing Insight TWI investigations that have “taken down human traffickers, exposed dozens of corrupt officials around the world, and uncovered atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq.”
But Ossoff the candidate is considerably more circumspect when asked about specific instances where he might apply the investigative skills on which he’s campaigning – even those closest to home.
On at least one occasion last year, then-Rep. Tom Price introduced legislation that would help a medical device manufacturer days after he invested in the company. On another, he purchased nearly $100,000 in stock in six pharmaceutical companies on the same day he sought to kill a rule that would hurt those companies’ profits.
Both instances, uncovered by separate news organizations, would at the very least appear worthy of further investigation. But asked three times during an interview with Rolling Stone if he would investigate these instances of alleged corruption by Price – the man whose seat he is running to fill – Ossoff refuses to answer. Instead, he repeats that he would hold politicians of both parties “accountable.”
“I have not dug deep into all of the relevant facts,” he says, finally, before offering to follow up after he’s had the chance. (More than a week later, he has not.)
Ossoff’s inability to make what should be for any Democrat – but especially for a man who has staked much of his candidacy on his willingness to investigate corrupt officials – an easy lay up, is indicative of just how precarious he realizes his position is, even with millions of dollars at his disposal.
All the money in the world may not be enough to buy a Democrat this particular seat – but a single House seat was never going to make a meaningful difference for Democrats in D.C. anyway. If progressives want to see real change, Daley says, they need to start paying attention to the down-ballot races that will determine who draws the district lines after the 2020 census.
“If Democrats are looking for an ‘impact race’ to spend their dollars on in 2017, the most important one out there is the governor’s race in Virginia,” he says. “Virginia’s governor’s race will be on the ballot in 2017, and Republicans have both houses of the legislature in Virginia. If Republicans win the governor’s race in Virginia, they would have an additional trifecta of the governor and both houses of the legislature — it would make 26 [Republican trifectas] of 50 states if they can win the governor’s race. And the governor who is elected in Virginia in 2017 will be in office and have veto power over the Congressional and state legislative maps in 2021. So that is an essential race.”
“These special elections are fool’s gold for Democrats,” Daley says.