It’s the stuff of juicy must-watch TV: Balaclava-clad assassins in El Salvador. Death squads on bloody streets in Kenya. Women once forced to serve as sex slaves for Islamic State terrorists training to fight their former captors in Iraqi deserts.
If Jon Ossoff pulls off an upset victory in the June 20 runoff with Republican Karen Handel, he’ll have taken one of the stranger paths to get there: As a 30-year-old investigative filmmaker who sent journalists to dusty Latin American alleys or sweltering Middle Eastern battlefields.
He is now the one in the white-hot lens of the nation’s political spotlight. The outcome could either put him on a trajectory for lasting Democratic stardom or doom him to be a footnote in Georgia political history.
By now, the plotlines are clear to any metro Atlanta resident who has ventured within sight of a screen. A former congressional aide with no elected experience rises from relative obscurity to nearly win a Republican stronghold on a tide of anti-Trump sentiment.
In that first round of voting, he benefited from a muddled 18-candidate field and fractured Republicans. In this final round, he faces a calculating opponent who has three times run for statewide office.
Handel’s campaign, bolstered by outside spending from GOP groups, has pummeled Ossoff with waves of attack ads that paint him as an inexperienced waif, a puppet of liberal outsiders and a resume-inflating wannabe.
With an unprecedented fundraising haul that now tops $23 million, he’s hit right back, assailing her for what he calls spending excesses while she was secretary of state. And his message has morphed, from one of anti-Trump vitriol to one more apt to rail against “wasteful spending” by both political parties.
Depending on how you see the race, an Ossoff victory this month is either an upset for the ages that will send shockwaves through Washington or the result of a desperate attempt by Democrats to wrest one victory in an otherwise brutal year.
To hear Ossoff tell it, sticking to a carefully calibrated message, it’s a chance for “kind, humble and focused” residents of the suburban Atlanta district to assert themselves.
Ossoff, as it’s often written, seems an unlikely vessel for the anti-Trump outrage. He stands pencil-straight and speaks in sometimes ponderous tones, with a cadence that can only be described as Obama-like. He is more likely to generate polite applause than a thunderous ovation.
He doesn’t really pepper his campaign speeches with anecdotes or small-talk and, nowadays, is even less likely to make much mention of Trump.
That might be because of the demographics of the district – conservative-leaning territory long in Republican hands that Trump narrowly carried – and because his pensive personality never really matched the sound-and-fury of his campaign rhetoric.
His catapult into politics sounds like it fits the script of a precocious teen movie. As a 17-year-old student at the Paideia School, he read U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ autobiography and was so moved he asked the civil rights icon for a job. It eventually turned into an internship in Washington.
Later, as a student at Georgetown University, Ossoff volunteered for Hank Johnson’s 2006 campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who had embarrassed Democrats and infuriated Republicans with one too many controversies.
When Johnson pulled off an upset primary victory, he joined the DeKalb lawmaker’s staff as a legislative aide and, as he’s repeated many times, a national security adviser to Johnson with “top secret” clearance.
That assertion launched a dozen attack ads; Politifact Georgia found no evidence he exaggerated his resume, though it said he left out “relevant context” about his experience.
When he left Johnson’s office to attend the London School of Economics, where he earned a graduate degree in 2013, he linked up with a former BBC TV reporter named Ron McCullagh who had started his own small investigative film company that produced and sold documentaries.
He met McCullagh as a teen and lined up an internship with him, and when they reconnected Ossoff used an inheritance from his late grandfather to buy an ownership stake in the business. He renamed the company Insight TWI.
‘A threat to prosperity’
He started telling friends he was interested in running for Congress soon after Trump tapped U.S. Rep. Tom Price, who had represented the district since 2004, as his health secretary. He formally jumped in the race in early January, and his announcement left little doubt about the campaign he intended to run.
“Donald Trump is an embarrassment and a threat to prosperity and health, justice, and security in the 6th District,” he said in that January dispatch. “I’m running to stop him and to fight for our community in Congress.”
By then he was already the fourth Democrat in the race – and maybe the least known. Two former state lawmakers had previously announced, and strategists worried the fractured ticket would prevent Democrats from uniting and cost them a shot at the seat.
But Ossoff had three advantages the others didn’t: He had $250,000 in cash commitments already lined up, endorsements from Johnson and Lewis and support from the liberal Daily Kos advocacy group.
It was Daily Kos that helped launch him into Democratic stardom, raising more than $400,000 for him in a single week. By now, the advocacy group has netted his campaign more than $1.6 million, mostly in small-dollar donations.
Carolyn Fiddler, the Daily Kos political editor, said Ossoff caught the eye of the group’s leadership after another Democratic contender dropped out of the race and threw his support to Ossoff. Its leaders interviewed him and soon decided to endorse.
“We were blown away by the response from the Daily Kos community, which quickly broke all of our own prior fundraising records,” she said. “We were also incredibly excited to see national Democrats and the broader progressive community follow our lead.”
That helped transform him into a fundraising dynamo, collecting more than $15 million in the last two months alone. Republicans point to the outside support as all the more reason to mistrust him.
“He’s a flaming liberal,” said Roger Wise, a Roswell retiree. “Nancy Pelosi wants him in there because he’s going to do exactly what she wants him to do.”
His supporters ping-pong from loyal adherents who see a future governor or even presidents to those who admit they’d vote for anyone in the race – as long as they’re not a Republican. Many see him as a way to deliver a message - a very loud one - to the White House.
“His victory is going to energize Democrats,” said Jon Reeves, a Sandy Springs retiree. “What Republicans are doing across the board – it’s disgusting.”
Ossoff, for the most part, seems OK with that. When asked in an interview what his campaign said about the national political atmosphere, he didn’t hesitate.
“I’m focusing on local economic development, cutting wasteful spending so we can set the right priorities,” said Ossoff. “Research and development. Higher education. Infrastructure and deficit reduction, so that metro Atlanta can achieve it’s economic potential, we can improve our standard of living and increase opportunity here at home.”
It’s opened himself up for some second-guessing among Democrats who quietly wonder if he’s taking the right approach.
Handel’s embrace of Trump - she campaigned with both the president and Vice President Mike Pence - has given Ossoff an opening to hit her harder on their close ties. But Ossoff has largely steered clear of sharper attacks against him, even ducking the chance to ding the president after he hurled a string of insulting tweets Ossoff’s way.
Republicans have upped their criticism, and one of the more damaging attacks involves his residency: Although he grew up in the district, he doesn’t live there now. Instead, he lives south of its borders, close to where his fiancee Alisha Kramer attends medical school at Emory University.
U.S. House members aren’t required to live in the district they represent, and Ossoff has said he’ll move to the 6th if he’s elected. But it’s prompted a flurry of timely reminders from Republicans that Ossoff can’t cast a ballot for himself on election day.
“Exactly who are you going to vote for in this election?” Handel pointedly asked him in the first debate between the two candidates, the brevity of the question seeming to take Ossoff by surprise.
His answer: He’s proud to support his fiancee’s career “even if I take a little bit of heat from it.”
If Ossoff wins this month, this frenzied election will just be seen as the first phase of a drawn-out battle. He’ll have earned an indelible target on his back in next year’s midterm races, when he must defend his seat.
If he loses, he said, he’ll have to consult with his fiancee about whether to run for the seat again or let another Democrat take a shot in 2018. Speculation will quickly ramp up about when he’ll run for other office.
He dismisses such talk. Voters, he said, are eager for a new voice in Congress and are “too darn smart” to fall for Republican attacks.
“This is a campaign about who’s going to provide the kind of fresh, independent-minded leadership that voters for the 6th District are hungry for,” said Ossoff.