The 32-year-old announced his Senate run in tandem with the highest-profile endorsement yet in the contest: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat and civil rights icon who said Ossoff “sparked a flame that is burning brighter than ever.”
“Like the many thousands Jon has already organized and inspired, I am ready to work tirelessly to elect him,” said Lewis. “Georgia and America need Jon.”
In an interview at his Grant Park home, Ossoff said his first act in the Senate would be to co-sponsor legislation that seeks to undo the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision and allow new restrictions on corporate political donations.
He said he chose to run against Perdue rather than compete for the soon-to-be-vacated seat held by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is stepping down at year’s end for health reasons, because Perdue “is one of the least effective and most out-of-touch members of the U.S. Senate.”
“We’re in a state where one in three rural children live in poverty, where we have the worst maternal mortality in the entire country, and in a half a decade, this guy hasn’t come down from his private island to do a single town hall meeting,” Ossoff said. “He hands out favors to his donors. He runs errands for the president.”
Perdue’s allies slammed Ossoff as a “radical liberal” and a “straw man for Nancy Pelosi,” but the Republican incumbent did not directly attack his new opponent.
“Senator Perdue is still the outsider in Washington. He is truly a different kind of leader with a proven record of shaking things up and actually getting results,” said Perdue spokeswoman Casey Black.
Republicans have dominated statewide elections in Georgia for most of the last two decades, and carried the state in presidential races in every vote since 1996. But Democrats hope an embrace of more liberal policies and unease with Trump will fuel the party’s comeback next year.
Ossoff joins three other Democrats who have a head-start: Business executive Sarah Riggs Amico, who was last year's runner-up for lieutenant governor; Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
They might soon have more company. About a dozen other Democrats are weighing a bid for either of the Senate seats, encouraged by the promise of an unprecedented amount of attention, funding and resources from party leaders aiming to flip the U.S. Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 edge.
‘Through the fire’
A former congressional staffer who runs an investigative journalism firm, Ossoff rose from obscurity to become a sudden star on the left before losing to Republican Karen Handel by about 4 points.
That vote centered the nation's attention on Georgia's 6th District, a stretch of north Atlanta from Cobb County to DeKalb County that Republicans figured would be easy to hold when Trump tapped U.S. Rep. Tom Price to be his health secretary shortly after he won another term by 24 percentage points.
Instead, the contest set one fundraising record after another as it became a $60 million nationally-watched proxy fight over Trump, the GOP push to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the battle for suburbia.
So intense was the fight that Handel brought Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan to Georgia for what she called an "all hands on deck" campaign. Ossoff kept all but a few lower-profile Democratic figures at arm's length over fears of alienating crossover Republican voters.
Ossoff showed how a virtually unknown millennial could make a conservative suburban stronghold one of the most competitive battlegrounds in the nation with a mix of liberal policy stances to "make Trump furious" and centrist-sounding messages to woo independents.
But the nationalization of the race contributed to his downfall as Handel and her allies relentlessly cast him as a puppet of Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats. Voters were also reminded that he didn't live in the district – he resided a few miles south – with attack ads throughout the contest.
In the interview, Ossoff said he would use his 2017 campaign as a blueprint for his Senate bid, pointing to the more than 13,000 volunteers and nearly 500,000 donors who gave average contributions of $21. His defeat helped pave the way for Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate who upset Handel last year.
“My candidacy was such a threat that Republicans at the highest level made my destruction their highest priority,” Ossoff said. “And I narrowly lost that race, but we built something special and enduring. And I’m still standing and ready to fight.”
His remarks, laced with criticism of Republicans, offered a preview of a campaign that would not hesitate to clash with Perdue or Trump.
“I learned never to be intimidated from telling my own story and touting my own accomplishments by the inevitable partisan smears that will come from super PACs in Washington,” said Ossoff. “I’ve been through the fire. I no longer care what they say about me.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., flanked by Rep. Buddy Carter R-Ga., left, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., right, leads a meeting with the Georgia Ports Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers to request full funding for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project in the 2020 federal budget, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
‘Bring it on’
Ossoff had prepared his campaign long before Isakson's surprise announcement two weeks ago that he would step down – a move that cements Georgia as a battleground state by triggering a second Senate contest in 2020.
At town halls and political rallies, Ossoff has honed a populist message that echoes his party's liberal wing. He's pledged to legalize marijuana, guarantee health insurance for all Americans and expand tuition-free higher education programs.
He told the AJC that his decision to run was influenced by two more recent developments. The first is Republican support for new anti-abortion restrictions that infuriated he and his wife Alisha, an OB/GYN resident at Emory University. He said he sees Georgia as the “front line in defense of choice.”
The second is his company's work producing global investigative documentaries that have exposed crooked judges, corrupt police officers and war criminals. It's also sparked deadly retribution, including the assassination of an undercover journalist in Ghana who worked with Ossoff and his firm.
“When the president of the United States is denouncing journalists as enemies of the people and targeting the press at political rallies, that sends a message all around the world to despots and governments that they can attack journalists with impunity,” Ossoff said. “Where is America’s moral leadership?”
With his entrance into a race that could attract even more scrutiny than the intense special election contest, Ossoff said he expects a reprisal of attacks that mock his age and role as an aide in Congress, where he was an intern to Lewis and later a national security staffer to U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson.
“I expect they’ll bring all of that again because they recognize that I’m a threat,” he said. “And I say bring it on.”
Jon Ossoff meets with Rep. Stacey Abrams and other leading Democrats during a visit to the state Capitol, March 30. Does his election tell us anything about their chances in 2018? (AJC Photo / Hyosub Shin)
Here are Ossoff’s responses to some key questions about the race:
On his age:
“My youth is my greatest strength. David Perdue retired into the Senate. I’ll go to the Senate to work for the people of Georgia.”
On John Lewis’ endorsement:
“I’m honored to have Congressman Lewis’ support. He’s a giant in American history. he’s been a mentor to me and the experience of working for him changed my life.”
On how he’ll energize Democrats when he faces a type of competition he didn’t in 2017:
“We are going to build on what we put together in 2017 and take that energy and excitement, that spirit of civic engagement and volunteerism, to every corner of this state.”
On how he describes his political philosophy:
“I don’t care about labels. I don’t care about the ideological categories. What I care about is trying to make a difference in people’s lives. Trying to end this appalling corruption that has infected our political system and fighting the abuse of power ... We need warriors for the people in the United States Senate.”
On how he will respond to attacks that paint him as a puppet to national Democrats:
"I'm not going to pay much mind to what attack ads Republican super PACs run against me. My job is to inspire and mobilize volunteers, to knock on doors across the state, to fight to ensure every American has healthcare. We're facing an ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, predictions of catastrophic climate change, crumbling infrastructure."
On whether he’ll take a more confrontational approach in 2020:
“One of the reasons that Republican super PACs funded by secret anonymous donors, private prisons, the fossil fuel industry spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat me in 2017 is precisely because they understood that someone with my background and my values was a serious threat to their stranglehold on the legislative process in Washington.”
On his electoral strategy:
“Right now, the job is to build the most potent grassroots organization the state has seen to defeat Sen. Perdue ... Stacey Abrams’ campaign was historic. I have never seen a more talented politician in Georgia, and she’s an inspiration to me. When you push on the wheel of history, sometimes it takes time to get where you want to go. But one of the things I learned from my race in ’17 is a fight well fought – even if you lose it – can be worth what you build in the process. That’s how I look back on my race in 2017 and that’s certainly how I look at Stacey Abrams’ historic, extraordinary performance in 2018.”
On his gun control stance:
“I support banning the sale of assault weapons to the general public - weapons that are derived from modern military technology should not be sold commercially absent some specific need ... Nine out of 1- Americans support universal background checks, and the failure of Congress to support universal background checks is a textbook example of Washington corruption.”
On his approach to climate change:
“We need a massive federal effort to solve this ecological and environmental crisis and at the same time revolutionize America’s infrastructure that is inspired by the same ambition as the New Deal and the Manhattan project.”
On his criminal justice stance:
“Marijuana should be legalized. If alcohol is a taxed, regulated, legal substance, so too should cannabis be. The public harms are less than alcohol, it kills far fewer people than alcohol. It’s prohibition only enriches drug cartels, private prisons and bail bondsmen. There are millions of people facing catastrophic effects in the criminal justice system because of marijuana-related offenses.”
On his college debt proposal:
“A combination of forgiveness, caps on interest rates and for those now entering college and in the future, making public college and technical training and community college debt free. This is personal for millions of people in my generation who lay awake at night anxious about their student loans, who can’t invest in their own lives and businesses ... It exerts a toll on our economy that so many young people and folks in middle age can’t invest and engage in the economy fully because they face this crippling debt.”
On how he’ll approach Democratic rivals:
“I’m really giving very little thought to other candidates, to other prospective candidates. We’ll see who ends up qualifying for the race. But I’m going to be focused every day on building a massive grassroots operation and demonstrating to the people of Georgia that if you believe like most Georgians and most Americans do that you’ve got to make sure everyone has healthcare, that you should not destroy our natural habitat and our one planet, that you should have to pass a background check to buy a gun. Commonsense public policy where there is an overwhelming public consensus. You know, the solutions to our problems are not mysterious, and that’s the message I’ll take to every corner of the state.”