midterm elections

Can Anti-Trump Fury Help a 30-Year-Old Democrat Win Gingrich’s Old Seat?

In all senses, the sun was shining on Jon Ossoff. It was early in the evening on a Sunday in late March, and the suddenly very visible 30-year-old Democratic candidate in the first competitive special congressional election of the Trump era was riding shotgun in a sooty-black Chrysler Sebring, hunched over a paper plate of cheese and crackers, while a member of his staff steered toward the next fund-raiser through the hills of suburban Atlanta. The back of the car was piled high with half a dozen Nike shoe boxes, a stuffed owl, and a reporter. Between bites, Ossoff stared ahead at the road, indulging in long pauses as he considered what to say about his new life as the luckiest young man in American politics. “There’s nothing that I would love more than a freewheeling conversation about political philosophy,” he said. “But I’m cautious because, as you know, the knives are out right now.”

That is not exactly how things appeared to most observers of this breakneck two-month campaign to fill the House seat vacated by Tom Price, the new secretary of Health and Human Services. Outside of the Sebring motorcade, Ossoff looks like the poster boy of the resistance, the grassroots opposition to both President Donald Trump and the wave of nationalism that installed him in office. He is a relative neophyte running 20 points ahead of a divided Republican field in a congressional district that hasn’t been blue since Jimmy Carter, also a Georgian, was president; an anonymous congressional aide turned documentary-film producer made into a national political figure mostly by love from readers of the Daily Kos; a pleasant, generic hipster-technocrat vessel into which an entire nation of angry Democrats has poured its electoral hopes (not to mention its millions of dollars — literally millions, a wild haul for a first-time nobody in a two-month race).

In this brave new post-2016 world, the Ossoff campaign is an experiment of sorts, a Trump-backlash trial balloon that might — on April 18, when the first round of voting is held, or on June 20, when the likely runoff will be completed — tell us just how much the president has reshaped the electoral map. It may also tell us that Democrats will have to do a whole lot more than just ride the wave of Trump hate to have a real chance of puncturing House Republicans’ red wall in 2018. Which is where Tom Perez, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tends to come down. “Our mistakes, I think, were not just in 2016,” he told me, sketching out his vision for how the party might win back control of the federal government. “Our mistakes were a number of years in the making. We ignored too many voters. We got away from a 50-state strategy. And we took too many people for granted.” Now, Perez said, he’s focused on making up for lost time, which includes plans to channel resources into Georgia’s Sixth District. “We’re going to work hard down there,” he said, “because underdogs win.”

By March, anti-Trump enthusiasm and the national spotlight had made the Ossoff campaign look considerably less underdog-y; most recent polls put him at 40 percent, within striking distance of a majority (which would win him the seat outright and allow him to avoid a runoff in which a Republican candidate could consolidate conservative voters). The Atlanta suburbs seemed so upended by the race it almost didn’t feel like the South at all; traveling from Trump’s Washington, D.C., to what Ossoff hopes will soon become his Georgia seat is like walking out of the Gathering of Juggalos and into the Metropolitan Opera. “He’s our hope,” Carol Finkelstein, a 71-year-old from Sandy Springs, told me in her placid living room on a recent Saturday, just before Ossoff took to the carpet to address her neighbors. “He can’t stop a runaway train, but I’m hoping he can at least be a voice of reason.” Nearby, Elaine Johnson, a 93-year-old who’s also committed to voting for Ossoff, was less diplomatic. “I’m an Independent,” she told me. “My husband was the Republican, but we don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

Georgia’s sixth district is a constellation of predominantly white suburbs just north of Atlanta. It has been Republican territory for decades; before Tom Price, the seat was held, for 20 years, by Newt Gingrich (who told me he’s not paying attention to the race but nevertheless thinks it’s “highly unlikely” a Democrat could ever win here — though “I don’t have any special, inside knowledge,” he said). So it required a series of unusually lucky breaks for Ossoff to find himself ahead of this field of 18. First, there was the presidential election: Although Price had enjoyed comfortable support since he entered office in 2005, winning his seat by 23 points in the fall, the president eked out a much smaller margin: 1.5 percent — news that rang like a dog whistle for Democrats across the country. “It’s a very affluent, well-educated district,” according to David Worley, who in 1990 nearly beat Gingrich. Worley told me, “A lot of traditional Republican voters, suburban voters, were clearly turned off by Trump.” Then there was Price’s decision to join the administration, throwing his once-secure seat into the vast unknown. “I didn’t start to think about running until Price’s nomination,” Ossoff said. “It’s something that I thought I might do in life, but no time soon.”

When he did enter the race, he did so dramatically — and shrewdly. One of his early fund-raising emails was titled, simply, “Make Trump Furious,” and so far people, egged on by liberal blogs, have committed to doing just that, to the tune of $4 million, in what he proudly claims are donations averaging $35 apiece. None of the Republicans, it’s safe to say, has come close to that, although one Republican super-PAC has already spent $2.2 million on ads attacking Ossoff. On the other side, the Democratic Party has paid for nine Ossoff staffers, Nancy Pelosi has thrown a fund-raiser, and Cory Booker has tweeted his support.

“Scarcely a week after we’d endorsed him, Ossoff broke our all-time fund-raising record for a single campaign, which was held by none other than Elizabeth Warren, for whom we’d raised over $400,000 back in 2012,” David Nir, the political director of Daily Kos, told me. “And a couple of weeks ago, he became our first-ever million-dollar candidate. As a result, something else interesting has happened. Our initial fund-raising was so berserk that it prompted a flurry of media attention, which in turn helped Ossoff raise more money, generating even more media attention. It’s been a very fruitful, positive feedback loop.”

And then there are the volunteers: nearly 8,000, according to the campaign, an astonishing number in a district that cast only 330,000 votes for Congress in November. Asked where that number came from, Andy Phelan, Ossoff’s communications director, told me, “That figure is based on how many people have signed up to volunteer on our website. Every weekend, we’re getting hundreds — and cumulatively thousands — of volunteers to go canvassing and phone-banking in any of our four field offices.” That includes actress Alyssa Milano, who was going door-to-door canvassing and, on Twitter, offered to personally give anyone who needed one a ride to the polls. One favorite volunteer T-shirt read VOTE YOUR OSSOFF.

And so Republicans are watching, including rather powerful ones. “Ossoff running smart campaign,” Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, told me in a text. A White House official close to him said he’s preoccupied with what’s happening some 600 miles south of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It’s something that I’m tracking specifically for Bannon,” the official said, “and keeping an eye on, following all the polls, following the kind of narrative out there — so it’s definitely something we’re paying attention to and the political department’s paying attention to as well.” Surely, then, they’ve noticed that the field is so vast — 18 candidates, larger than the Republican-primary field in 2016, which was memorably chaotic — that it’s enabled Ossoff to rise above the infighting plaguing candidates on both sides. While old-hand local Democrats in the race whine about what they’re calling Ossoff’s “coronation,” the Republican who is polling closest to him, Karen Handel — a former Georgia secretary of State, gubernatorial candidate, and breast-cancer activist who resigned from the Susan G. Komen foundation when it decided to continue funding Planned Parenthood — is 20 points behind him. Even many supporters fear her campaign is floundering; she recently came under attack by the conservative Club for Growth (an ad criticized her for spending money to plant trees on government property for the purpose of “beautifying” it). Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has stumped for another candidate, Bruce LeVell — the president’s former “diversity chief,” who has been campaigning as “the real Trump candidate in this race.”

Still, the White House is optimistic that some Republican or other will keep the seat from Ossoff, a real possibility if he falls short on April 18 and is forced into the runoff. “I think that buzz translated into higher poll numbers than he’ll get on Election Day,” the official said. “It’s really easy for Ossoff to run against the shadow of Trump, the specter of Trump, this bogeyman — because there’s no official candidate. But once we have a candidate who can make a case for themselves, I think the polling will change pretty quickly.”

Ossoff speaks to volunteers gathered in Marietta, Georgia, before they canvass. Photo: Melissa Golden

On paper, Ossoff seems great to Democrats: He’s an overachieving millennial who looks like a cross between Gumby and Justin Trudeau and who speaks slowly and deliberately in a way that can remind you of Barack Obama, something he’s been told before. “Maybe the reason he spoke in some way kind of like this is because he was trying to do the same thing,” Ossoff told me, “which is to be precise and accurate and thoughtful and substantive and say what you mean and what you feel and what you think is right without serving up something that the opposition can easily slice, dice, and throw up against you.” He seemed to be slyly talking about Trump but also expressing a principle of self-preservation: With Republicans waiting for him to fuck up, he’s jumpy, hyperaware that trackers could be filming him at any time, ready to clip anything he says and use it in an attack ad. “It’s important that you understand that I’m not saying you don’t say what you really mean,” he told me. “What I’m saying is your brain is working at 300 percent all the time because you need to both do that and parse your words in such a way that it can’t be used against you.” All of this makes him a radically boring person to talk or listen to, especially compared with the fiery rhetoric of Trump or Bernie Sanders. “It’s challenging,” he admitted.

A lifelong Democrat, Ossoff was born Thomas Jonathan Ossoff to a Russian-Lithuanian father and Australian-immigrant mother who were active in local politics and helped him, as a young boy with no siblings but a pit-bull mutt named Mattie, stake lawn signs into the front yard for Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta (parts of DeKalb County can vote in that election). His list of extracurriculars, detailed in his official biography, is almost comically long: At Paideia, an expensive private school in Atlanta, he played baseball and ultimate Frisbee; when he was 17, he interned in the Washington office of John Lewis, the congressman and civil-rights hero who endorsed his candidacy and later released supportive television ads; at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, he sang bass in an a cappella group and performed at the Kennedy Center while working part time for Representative Hank Johnson; at the London School of Economics, where he earned his master’s, he played third base for the South London Pirates in the British Baseball Federation. According to public records, he has also acquired pilot, hunting, and fishing licenses. He now considers himself a journalist, he says, since he runs an Emmy Award–winning documentary-film-production company called Insight TWI: The World Investigates, which produces features about various global injustices for places like Al Jazeera (whose $5,000 payment to TWI has been flagged by his Republican rivals). All of this makes Ossoff the kind of figure an old person would say has a good head on his shoulders.

But he is also, that old person might notice, green — at 30, Barack Obama was just graduating from Harvard Law — and on the trail, it shows. He has the right profile and the right temperament for suburban Democrats who’d have probably preferred another Obama term, but in the short campaign, he hasn’t yet managed to refine his pitch. He talks mostly about holding those in power “accountable,” suggesting he could use his documentary-filmmaker chops in the Capitol, perhaps by setting up an investigative unit in his office — a nice idea, but what it would look like, or how it would be better or more effective than the House Oversight Committee, is not entirely clear. He’s reluctant to get into specifics on other matters — not because he can’t, it’s clear when talking to him, but because he’s afraid anything he says will come back to haunt him. Asked to explain his ideal foreign policy, he said simply, “Tough and smart,” before finally explaining that meant avoiding quagmires like the Iraq War but adding that there aren’t any members of Congress who come to mind whose foreign policy aligns closely with his. And when I asked him to describe his political philosophy for me — an innocuous-enough question for someone hoping to become one of 435 Americans serving in the House, he said, “It’s a good question,” before pausing for 42 seconds. “I think I would say focused on accountability and, um,” he said, eventually, before pausing again, “as an objective that can break the partisan divide. Because I think that between the Sanders phenomenon and Trump’s election, the clear message is a complete loss of a faith in the political process and the institutions of government and a recognition that they are not accountable. To the extent I’m trying anything new here in the Sixth District, it’s to try to build a coalition that crosses party lines because of a shared commitment to cleaner government.”

Critics have cast him as a young man in a hurry, broadly deriding him as unserious and underdeveloped. One early attack ad used footage of him dressed as Han Solo in college (“The best word I can think of is lame,” Perez said of the ad; it backfired). A more recent one tried to link him to anarchists protesting Trump’s inauguration in D.C. (just as outlandish, given Ossoff’s very apparent liberal Establishmentarianism). More reasonable is skepticism about his national-security credentials. When he announced his candidacy, Ossoff said in a press release that he “served Georgia as a national-security staffer in Congress for five years before leaving government for the private sector,” something he’s repeated often on the stump. But he joined Johnson’s staff part time in January 2007 and left five years later, after becoming a full-time employee, in the summer of 2012, meaning that for his claim to be true, he’d have to have been a 20-year-old college student moonlighting as a national-security adviser. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that his campaign told them he’d received top-secret security clearance after the 2006 election, but when the campaign, under mounting pressure, released a precise timeline of his career as a congressional aide a few weeks later, it was revealed that he actually received the clearance in March 2012 — meaning he could’ve had it for only five months. But Johnson, who served on the Armed Services Committee until the most recent Congress, was quite direct in telling me that concerns about Ossoff’s background were unfounded and that, yes, someone barely old enough to drive had been advising him on matters of existential importance to the country. “Jon was an exceptional young man,” he said. “Jon’s level of influence and his level of work in the office probably exceed what he has written on his bio because he and I have just been so very close.”

Those looking to nitpick the résumé could find some smaller nits, too: Ossoff doesn’t live in the district, but a mile or so south, within walking distance of Emory University, where his girlfriend of 12 years, Alisha Kramer, is studying to be an OB/GYN; he’s careful to say he was “raised” in North DeKalb County, not that he’s based there now. And though he uses part of his stump speech to decry smart young people leaving the state to take their talents elsewhere, his own company, TWI, is based in London. (“I think international business experience is an asset in a congressional candidate, particularly in a district with so much international commerce,” he told me in response. “If we can grow a more thriving economy, then more young folks like me will stay and do our work here.”) But all told, Ossoff offers a clean, fresh political face. To look at the polls — and count the fund-raising and volunteers — that and Trump hate may just be enough.

On November 8, Ossoff was with a film crew and a right-wing militia in rural Georgia. “I actually watched the returns come in on my cell phone around a campfire with heavily armed militiamen,” he told me. “They were thrilled by the result.” To hear the news that way, he remembered, was “surreal.” When he left there, he made his way over to more familiar territory: Manuel’s Tavern, a Democratic watering hole just outside the district on North Highland Avenue, where a portrait of John F. Kennedy hangs above the liquor behind the bar. “There, the mood was really grim,” he said.

Anti-Trump fervor may be propelling Ossoff’s meteoric rise, but — after that initial, inspired fund-raising push — his strategy has been to utter the president’s name precious little, to avoid alienating voters, hoping his manner of speaking and the values he discusses will be contrast enough for traditionally conservative or moderate voters to get the point. (This is another way Ossoff’s campaign is a test case: Just how explicitly should Democrats run against Trump, and his still-committed voters, heading into 2018?) Standing in the middle of Carol Finkelstein’s living room, he wore a dark suit with a burgundy tie, the suit’s trim tailoring and the tie’s appropriate length yet another reminder of whose regime he’s campaigning against. “Of course, we all saw how razor-thin the president’s margin of victory was in this district, because it is a moderate district with pretty discerning, well-informed voters who judge candidates rather than political parties,” he told the crowd encircling him. “We are the first up to bat,” he said, “and the country’s looking at us to see what kind of statement we’re gonna make.” He often laments what he told me was the “fundamental mistake” Hillary Clinton made by “disparaging or attacking voters” and not speaking “to a broad enough group of people,” something he said was a failure of strategy more than tactics. And in conversation, he goes to great lengths to talk about all Americans with what he says is a basic level of respect. “I do speak to his supporters. I’m campaigning across the district to folks with all views,” he said. “One of the rules of running for Congress is no matter where you go, you speak like you’re speaking to the whole district.”

At Pour Bistro in Atlanta, Ossoff was introduced by a supporter as “the Ayatollah of the Sixth District,” and he appeared to hold back a grimace. “Hopefully that won’t become a famous moment,” he told the crowd, which laughed in response — perhaps not quite as worried about that as Ossoff is. He wove through his stump speech, which I heard over and over again as I followed him throughout the district to well-attended house parties where supporters sipped beer and La Croix: born in North DeKalb County, by the Northlake Mall; went to Georgetown; learned on Capitol Hill how D.C. both works and doesn’t work. He hadn’t thought he’d get back into politics — that is, “until November,” a line that sometimes draws laughs and other times sober silence. “What we learned in November, I think more important than our views about any candidate or any party, is that there’s a real loss of faith in this country in the political system and in our institutions,” he said. John Lewis “encouraged” him to run and promised to support him if he did, “so I threw my hat into the ring, and it’s been a fast-paced few months. Usually you have a year and a half to put together a congressional campaign. This is all happening in just a few months.” But more important than how fast he’s moving, he says, is how fast the country is. “This is the first competitive race in the country since the presidential election, it’s the first chance to make a statement about what we stand for, and the eyes of the country are on us.”

Parker Short, a 15-year-old boy from Dunwoody with a cherubic face, was looking on, taking photos and smiling as Ossoff spoke. The Women’s March in Atlanta had been “monumental” and a “life-changing experience” for him, he told me, and he was even more excited about Ossoff. “He represents my beliefs, and he’ll get a lot done in Washington that’ll help the people of our city,” he told me. “I wanna be a politician,” he added. “Either Congress or more local. I’ve already volunteered, I did some canvassing, I’ve been handing out signs. It’s been wonderful.”

His mother sat a few feet away at the bar. “He’s the future,” she said.

*This article appears in the April 3, 2017, issue of New York Magazine. A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Elaine Johnson.

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