Jon Ossoff, now running for the U.S. Senate in the June 9 Democratic primary, says his run in a 2017 special election for the U.S. House taught him “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.” Because of that experience, Ossoff said: “I’ve been through the fire. I no longer care what they say about me.” Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Ossoff applies lessons from 2017 loss to bid this year for U.S. Senate

The arc of Jon Ossoff’s bid for the U.S. Senate this year was shaped partly by his last run for public office, a campaign three years ago that dominated national political attention and shattered fundraising records.

In a contest cast as a litmus test of President Donald Trump’s popularity in the suburbs, the political newcomer soon became a hero to Democrats who funneled roughly $30 million into a campaign he narrowly lost to Republican Karen Handel.

The rough-and-tumble race, and the intense media scrutiny scouring his college videos and experience, helped forge a more confrontational candidate. Now 33, Ossoff said the abiding lesson is that he won’t hesitate to clash with U.S. Sen. David Perdue or other Republicans.

“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,” Ossoff said. “I’ve been through the fire. I no longer care what they say about me.”

>> Guide: Where U.S. Senate Democratic candidates stand on the issues

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He opened his campaign with a pledge to lean on his network of supporters to “raise a grassroots army unlike any this state has ever seen,” though the pandemic has forced Ossoff and his rivals to resort to virtual meetings, online forums and a blitz of TV ads to get their message across.

His criticism is almost singularly focused on deep-seated corruption in Washington and Perdue’s allegiance to Trump — and with scarce mention of his top rivals: former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and Sarah Riggs Amico, the party’s 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor.

Armed with the endorsements of U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson and John Lewis — veteran Democrats he considers mentors — he’s embraced left-leaning policies he didn’t emphasize during his 2017 campaign for a district that had long been a Republican stronghold.

Ossoff has talked often about deep racial inequities that shape every facet of American life, and he’s promised to fight for stronger civil rights protections, an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences and a ban on private prisons.

His latest TV ad invokes the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old shot dead while running near his Brunswick neighborhood, in his push to overhaul the criminal justice system. He’s called the pandemic a “massive wake-up call” to expand health insurance and bolster public health funding.

And he’s highlighted the work of his investigative journalism firm, which has produced global documentaries aimed at exposing corruption and misdeeds.

“There are so many people who believe they can get away with terrible things — human trafficking, murder for hire,” he said in a recent online forum. “They believe they can behave with impunity. And what so many journalists around the world do is ensure they’re held accountable.”

Primed on Perdue

Ossoff leads the Democratic field in the few public polls that have surfaced, although they also indicate a high number of undecided voters. And a series of internal Republican polls obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show him in a tight hypothetical matchup against Perdue.

The most likely outcome in the seven-candidate Democratic primary is an August runoff against either Amico or Tomlinson, though Ossoff might take a different approach — one that is also colored by his 2017 race.

Back then, he fell just short of the majority vote needed in the crowded special election and then a few weeks later narrowly lost a head-to-head matchup to Handel in a runoff.

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.

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, while he pushed a mix of liberal policy stances and centrist-sounding messages to try to woo independents in the moderate-leaning district.

Wary of another tense runoff battle, Ossoff has signaled he might try to land a knockout blow in this contest. He recently pumped $450,000 of his own money into his campaign, giving him a decided financial edge in the closing days of the race.

While his advisers downplay the possibility he could avoid a runoff in a seven-candidate race, veteran political watchers saw his cash infusion as proof that he’s maneuvering to win the contest outright.

And he’s kept his message fixed on Perdue, saying the Republican is “backed by the lobbyist cartel of trade groups” interested more in the status quo than the public good.

During one recent online debate, when Tomlinson questioned whether his background as a “documentary filmmaker and an unsuccessful congressional candidate” prepared him for the U.S. Senate, he ignored the swipe and trained his fire on Perdue.

“I expose corruption for a living,” he said, “and David Perdue sells access for campaign cash.”

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