2020 elections

Jon Ossoff’s Back, and Other News From Battleground Georgia

Jon Ossoff became a household name in 2017, and is now running for the Senate. Photo: David Goldman/AP/Shutterstock

In the spring of 2017, there was no hotter name in American politics than that of Jon Ossoff. The novice Democratic congressional candidate running in a special election for an open House seat in the Atlanta suburbs broke every fundraising record in sight. In the election’s first round (Georgia requires a majority of the vote to avoid runoffs), he won 48 percent of the vote, narrowly missing an outright victory over veteran conservative pol Karen Handel for the seat that had been vacated by then-HHS Secretary Tom Price. But then an energized Republican Party came together on Handel’s behalf, and she won a June runoff by a 52/48 margin.

The expectations Ossoff raised along with all that money (nearly $30 million) made his narrow defeat all the more disappointing, and he took a pass on a rematch with Handel in 2018 (Democrat Lucy McBath picked up the baton and edged out Handel that year). Now, at the ripe old age of 33, he’s attempting a comeback, this time in a statewide race to challenge Republican senator David Perdue. That donor list he built in 2017 still has major value; he’s running first in Democratic primary polls, mostly thanks to over $3 million (as of March 31) he’s pulled in, significantly more than the fundraising totals for his two chief Democratic rivals, former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson, and 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico.

Often criticized by progressives in 2018 for being too centrist and for having too little outreach to minority voters, Ossoff has been working on his left flanks, picking up an endorsement from onetime opponent and local progressive champion Ted Terry (mayor of Clarkston), and relying heavily on ads featuring Congressman John Lewis (for whom Ossoff once worked). With seven names on the Democratic ballot for the June 9 primary, though, the odds are good Ossoff will be knocked into an August 11 runoff against either Tomlinson or Amico (a March University of Georgia poll had Ossoff at 29 percent, Tomlinson at 15 percent, and Amico at 14 percent, with a big undecided vote). At that point, he better get his money machine in gear.

What’s making this race more interesting is polling showing Georgia becoming a true multi-contest battleground, with Perdue (who is closely associated with both Donald Trump and with Georgia governor Brian Kemp, neither of whom is terribly popular in the state right now) looking vulnerable, after initially looking like a cinch for reelection. A new Civiqs poll shows Ossoff leading Perdue by two points (47/45), with Tomlinson only trailing the incumbent by a point (44/45), and Amico down by just three points (42/45). The same poll shows Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in Georgia by a point (48/47). An earlier GOP-commissioned Cygnal poll had similar numbers for Trump and Biden, with Trump and Kemp both getting poor marks for their handling of COVID-19.

There will be another Senate race on the ballot in November (in a nonpartisan “jungle primary” to fill the current seat originally held by Johnny Isakson, who resigned at the end of 2019 for health reasons). The appointed Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, is off to a terrible start in the Senate, beset by bad publicity over insider-trading suspicions stemming from stock sales by her and her very rich husband (CEO of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange), and facing opposition from both Democrats and Republicans (particularly Congressman Doug Collins, whom Trump very publicly wanted to get the appointment from Kemp). The new Civiqs poll shows how much trouble Loeffler is in, despite some already pretty heavy advertising by her campaign: She’s running fourth with 12 percent, not only trailing Collins (32 percent) and the consensus Democratic favorite (Raphael Warnock, at 18 percent), but also another Democrat, Matt (son of Joe) Lieberman, at 14 percent.

So things are getting interesting in Georgia. It’s an ongoing experiment in coronavirus policy, given Kemp’s decision to reopen businesses even faster than Trump wants (at present, per a Survey Monkey poll, Kemp is the only governor in the country with as low an approval rating as the president’s in handling COVID-19). Thanks in part to Stacey Abrams’s continuing involvement in voting-rights advocacy in the state, it’s a front line in the battle for access to the ballot box. Georgia is potentially a new presidential battleground state, has two increasingly competitive Senate races, and then two competitive House races to boot (a Handel versus McBath rematch in the suburban Atlanta Sixth District, and an open Republican seat in the next-door Seventh District which Democrat Carolyn Bordeaux, who is running again, came within a few hundred votes of winning in 2018). And if control of the Senate is in play after November, it will be likely be decided by a January 2021 runoff in Georgia between the top-two performers in the jungle primary Kelly Loeffler is struggling to survive.

Such a contest would be even wilder, and probably even more expensive, than that 2017 special election where Jon Ossoff got oh-so-close to a big Democratic breakthrough.

Jon Ossoff’s Back, and Other News From Battleground Georgia