Jon Ossoff’s campaign for Georgia’s 6th District is at once tantalizing and haunting for Democrats preparing for next year’s midterms.
He raised more money than any other U.S. House candidate in history and transformed the contest for a safely Republican district into a nail-biter with sweeping national implications. And he lost that race by 4 points despite more than $30 million on his behalf and the weight of the Democratic Party behind him.
He rose from obscurity to become a face of the movement to thwart Donald Trump and a sudden star of the left. And the nationalization of the race contributed to his downfall, fueling turnout in a district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats.
Ossoff cast it his own way in a Washington Post editorial published late Monday: "I was defeated. But we put up a hell of a fight."
"I launched this campaign believing that America can become stronger, more prosperous and more secure only if we stay true to the values that unite us," he wrote. "I still believe that, and I’m not done fighting.”
Democrats poring over the lessons from his defeat will find few easy answers, and Ossoff’s supporters are plagued with what-ifs:
Should he have gone harder on Trump, or should he have laid off the president? Should he have stopped trying to navigate the treacherous tightrope of appealing to both liberals and moderates? What would the race have looked like had he moved to the district before he announced?
To Ossoff supporters, the race starts and ends with the cold, hard calculus of the district's demographics.
Before the vote, one pollster compared the turnout to a bell-curve: Extremely low or high turnout would help Ossoff, but that anything closer to traditional levels would buoy Handel.
Ossoff’s campaign, though, had already quietly charted a red-line: His strategists calculated that one quarter-million votes or above would spell doom. Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the district, and a high turnout meant both sides were energized.
The election drew nearly 260,000 votes. As Ossoff pollster John Anzalone told Politico: “We just ran out of Democrats and independents.”
Case in point: A New York Times analysis found that Democrats and Republicans voted at roughly the same rate in last week's runoff - encouraging for Democrats used to being outgunned in special elections. About 10,000 more 6th District voters cast ballots for Ossoff in the special election than they did for Barack Obama in 2012. He succeeded in capturing younger and irregular voters who rarely cast ballots in special elections.
Still, when the district's demographics already skews toward the GOP, that kind of turnout surge from both sides of the aisle yielded a wider-than-expected Republican win.
Then there's the questions of messaging. And the Trump question is one of the most tempting. Ossoff entered the race with a stark promise to stand up to the president, and his “make Trump furious” mantra helped fuel his prodigious fundraising. But he later toned down the tough-talk – and the motto - in an attempt to woo moderates and independents.
That two-pronged messaging was aimed at independents Ossoff was desperate to win: Even as he stuck to centrist-sounding promises of cutting wasteful spending and turning the district into the “Silicon Valley of the South,” he took liberal positions on climate change and the minimum wage.
One of the most striking moments came during the first of their two debates, when each candidate was asked to name one fight they would never give up in Congress. Handel said it was to stave off tax increases. Ossoff, without hesitating, said it was voting rights.
Some campaign experts have questioned why he didn’t deliver sharper blows against the president – especially when Trump directly attacked him in a swirl of tweets and robo-calls.
Chip Lake is a GOP consultant in Georgia and go-to analyst in deciphering the race, often quoted in our pages and in stories around the nation. He was quick to conceded Ossoff "ran a good campaign" but questioned whether the hands-off approach to Trump hurt him in a district where the president has struggled.
“He ran the runoff like Trump was an invisible man,” he said, “despite image ratings for Trump that were upside down in the district.”
Others say he was too civil, though 6th District voters often saw a sharper-edged Ossoff that belied his national image.
Among them was the barrage of ads and events that labeled Handel as “unforgivable” for her role in cutting ties with Planned Parenthood at a breast-cancer charity. That decision, he said on the campaign trail, jeopardized the health of countless women.
The unprecedented fundraising haul brought him heaps of attention, though it also opened him to attacks that his campaign was powered by out-of-state donors. His attempts to counter by arguing that national GOP groups backing Handel raised much of their money from shadowy interests struggled to break through.
The ground-game numbers his campaign claims in a memo are staggering: More than 100 paid field team operatives, 300-plus local precinct captains and 12,000 volunteers who completed more than 1 million door-knocks. A majority of 6th District residents told AJC pollsters they were contacted in-person by his campaign.
The deluge that turned suburban Atlanta into a national battleground was invigorating to some, exhausting to others. Residents across the district shared stories of receiving two, three, four fliers from his campaign – on a single day. Some begged for advice on how to stop the calls, text messages and door-knocks; many said that they didn’t stop even after they voted early.
In the end, one of his biggest challenges was one that was surmountable: He didn’t live in the district – he lived a few miles south of the area near Emory University – and he was reminded of that fact with attack ads and campaign broadsides throughout the election. Handel said she pressed the issue even more after hearing an increasing amount of feedback about it closer to last week's runoff.
The Democrat's supporters saw a no-win situation: Even a late move to the 6th District wouldn’t have inoculated him to barbs that he was not “one of us” and that he was a shrewd opportunist.
Ossoff has yet to decide whether to run again next year, and other Democrats eyeing the race are waiting for his decision. His supporters, though, laid the groundwork for another bid in a closing memo penned by campaign manager Keenan Pontoni.
“We never stopped trying to get out each and every single vote," he wrote. "And we defied the odds.”
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