Jon Ossoff casts shadow over 6th District debate

6th District congressional candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to the crowd during his election night watch party in June 2017. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

6th District congressional candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to the crowd during his election night watch party in June 2017. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

It's been nearly a year since his Cinderella bid for Congress fell short, but Jon Ossoff loomed large over Tuesday's debate between the four Democrats vying to take on his former opponent in Georgia's 6th District.

The documentary filmmaker, whose candidacy during last year's special election toppled fundraising records and put the long-held GOP seat in play, might have passed on challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel again this year, but his name was invoked constantly during Georgia Public Broadcasting and the Atlanta Press Club's 45-minute debate.

Democratic candidates Lucy McBath, Bobby Kaple, Kevin Abel and Steven Knight Griffin fielded questions about their residency in the suburban Atlanta district, which was a major sticking point for Ossoff during last year's campaign. They also laid out what they would do differently from Ossoff --who lost to Handel by about 10,000 votes, or roughly 4 percentage points, last June -- including their approach to President Donald Trump.

Kaple, a former news anchor, credited Ossoff for “laying the groundwork” for Democrats to run competitively in the district, which has been controlled by Republicans for decades.

“This seat would not be in play were it not for his improbable campaign in last summer’s special election,” he said, vowing to “not shy away from anything,” including Trump.

Tuesday's debate was lacking in any major fireworks or testy exchanges, and none of the candidates sought to distance themselves too far from Ossoff, who has since gone back to his film company but stayed involved in Democratic politics.

Some of the strongest criticism came from Abel, who emphasized his longtime Alpharetta residency and business experience as factors that could help him win over more independent voters.

“We learned that it’s going to take more than a fresh, young telegenic face and a lot of money to win in this district,” Abel said.

“We need a candidate who lives in the district, for 26 years perhaps, who’s raised his family (there). Someone who’s created jobs,” he added.

Abel wasn’t the only candidacy to invoke Ossoff’s address. (Ossoff has since quietly moved into the 6th District not far from where he grew up.)

When Kaple questioned McBath on why she didn’t vote in last year’s special election, she responded that she was living with her husband in Tennessee at the time as he took care of his sick father. She said she currently resides in Marietta, where she had raised her late son.

Political types in Washington are closely watching the early stages of the 6th District race to see if they want to once again devote significant resources there. Last year's contest attracted record amounts of outside money because it was seen as an early litmus test for the Trump presidency.

Ossoff had been criticized by some Democrats for not being harder on the president as he sought to win over moderates and independents during the later phases of the race.

Asked about whether they would approach the commander-in-chief differently, both Kaple and Abel said they wouldn’t back down from criticizing Trump when warranted.

“It’s important that we have somebody that is not only willing to listen to the voters here in Georgia’s 6th District, but when needed will stand up to President Donald Trump and his apprentice, Rep. Karen Handel,” Kaple said.

Handel does not face a primary opponent and has spent the last few months under the radar, quietly amassing a large war chest for her reelection effort. She ended the first quarter with a formidable $792,000 in the bank.

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