Will the ‘Ossoff effect’ propel Democrats beyond the 6th District?

May 3, 2017 - Atlanta - Jon Ossoff holds a press conference in Liberty Plaza, across from the Capitol. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
May 3, 2017 - Atlanta - Jon Ossoff holds a press conference in Liberty Plaza, across from the Capitol. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Katie Landsman watched her 11-year-old son embrace Jon Ossoff at his cramped Marietta campaign office. The boy was bawling. He had just learned about the horrors of the Holocaust, she explained, and wanted to meet a young politician who gave him hope.

Then she offered a confession. She lives in Acworth, miles outside the 6th Congressional District. She can't vote for Ossoff on June 20 in the runoff against Karen Handel. But the surprisingly tight race for a seat once considered a GOP stronghold has motivated her to volunteer.

"I'm determined to not just flip the 6th District, but the state of Georgia. In my lifetime, if possible," Landsman said, with a hint of a smile. "I really think we can do this. I mean, if we win this, we can do anything."

Tom Price’s congressional seat is vacant since he accepted a position in the Trump administration.

This is what Republicans are already calling the “Ossoff effect,” and Democrats are hoping to bottle the 30-year-old’s formula for other races.

At Ossoff’s April 18 election party, he was surrounded by candidates for other races hoping to snap selfies with him. They held press conferences with him. And nervous Republicans warn of electoral fallout.

John Kennedy, one of the top Republicans in the state Senate, sounded an alarm this month in a memo to his GOP colleagues about the surprising special election surge of a little-known Democratic state Senate candidate who hitched her campaign to Ossoff.

“While many think that this is a dark red Republican territory, the data from the election is disturbing considering the number of Democrats that came out and voted, partly because of the [Jon] Ossoff effect,” he wrote.

‘That didn’t work out’

Democrats have long preached that Georgia’s changing demographics would shift the winds toward their backs after nearly two decades in the political wilderness. The past few election cycles proved they still had a long ways to go. Each began with lofty hopes from Democrats. And each ended in GOP victories.

Republicans control every statewide office, three-quarters of the state's congressional seats and about two-thirds of state legislative districts. And the battle lines in many of these districts are drawn to the GOP's advantage, giving them a formidable edge.

“They thought they could flip a Senate seat in Georgia too in ‘14,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, referring to the election that sent him to Washington. “That didn’t work out so well, did it?”

Nor did it last week in a race for an open state Senate seat that spans parts of east Cobb and Sandy Springs — some of the most conservative territory in the district. Republican Kay Kirkpatrick easily defeated Democrat Christine Triebsch in the contest, thanks to hefty margins in Cobb that propelled her to a 14-point victory.

But Democrats saw a silver lining in the defeat: Clinton took about 40 percent of the vote in the Senate district in November. Triebsch upped that by 3 points. If Ossoff outdoes Clinton in the 6th District by the same margin, he’ll be on his way to Washington.

State Democrats say they can parlay even a modest uptick in civic activism triggered by Donald Trump’s election to help them grow in Atlanta’s educated and increasingly diverse northern suburbs. The recent reports that he divulged classified information to Russia and urged the FBI director to drop an investigation into his former national security adviser could add fuel to the fire.

The next potential battleground could be Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which slices through much of Gwinnett County.

Washington analysts still consider the seat safely Republican, in part because it’s been held by the GOP for more than 20 years. Seismic demographic forces, though, are transforming the region.

Once one of the richest sources of Republican votes in the state, Gwinnett for the first time in 2016 no longer had a majority-white voting population. Hillary Clinton swept the county in November, flipping it blue for the first time in decades.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report now estimates the 7th District is the top Democratic-trending areas in the nation. That's given the party hopes it can recruit a strong challenger to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall next year and other GOP incumbents in once-sleepy races.

“Before in Georgia, we were always looking for Democratic candidates to challenge Republicans,” said Stefan Turkheimer, a Democratic strategist. “Now we’ll have primaries to challenge Republicans. It’s kind of an amazing thing.”

‘It’s gerrymandering’

Woodall, a low-profile policy geek who is known for his winding oratory — and accompanying poster boards — on the federal budget on the House floor, said the talk doesn’t worry him.

His district dodges the more diverse southern reaches of the county and also encompasses much of deeply conservative Forsyth County. He’s quick to acknowledge that the district’s design has helped insulate him from more electoral pressure.

“It’s gerrymandering that makes these things noncompetitive, right?” Woodall said in an interview. “Gwinnett County, if it was one district, it would be an incredibly competitive district.”

Woodall and other Republicans are keen to play down the “Ossoff effect” as well. After all, they say, it’s easy to raise mounds of cash and attract heaps of national attention when you’re running in one of the only major contests of the year. November 2018, when all 435 U.S. House seats and a load of statewide races are on the ballot, will be a different story.

“You can’t put all your energy as a party into one race, and that’s what they were able to do now in the 6th District,” GOP strategist Chip Lake said. “That being said, of course Republicans are concerned about 2018. You’d be foolish not to.”

In Georgia, Republicans have plenty to defend — and an enthusiasm gap to narrow. Once-sleepy Democratic town hall meetings that drew a few dozen attendees in the past now sport hundreds. Ossoff routinely attracts big crowds across the district, while Handel has held few events advertised to the media.

There’s also anxiety on the right that Trump’s unorthodox style could keep Democrats engaged through the midterms and help them recruit serious candidates to challenge Republican incumbents in districts that haven’t seen true competition in years.

“We Republicans need to be vigilant in recognizing that, in modern politics, being against someone or something is almost a more powerful force than being for someone,” said Heath Garrett, a Republican campaign consultant.

For Woodall, that vigilance starts with constantly traveling across his district and meeting with constituents. He said he’s seen more civic involvement in recent months as the spotlight shines brighter on the 6th District race. He said it has made “influencing the process feel accessible to people.”

“They might not agree with me on everything,” Woodall added, “but now they’re calling and now we’re sitting down together.”

New Democratic mold?

Ossoff has long tried to play down the notion that he’s a symbol of the anti-Trump resistance, even as he reaps the fundraising benefits of being a Democratic darling.

“It doesn’t have much to do with me personally,” he said in an interview. “It has to do with the times we’re living in and the community we’re living in. This is not a community of partisans — it’s a community of decent, kind people who want effective representation at all levels of government.”

His fellow Democrats haven’t gotten the memo. Sheila Levy, a Dunwoody property manager, sees Ossoff as her “light at the end of the tunnel.”

She had never canvassed, never worked a phone bank and certainly never marched before. She recalled sitting on the couch after Trump’s victory and complaining — no, yelling — at her TV. So, starting in March she canvassed 16 days in a row for Ossoff.

“I’ve jumped in with both feet,” Levy said. “I know the nation is watching this race. We came so close to flipping it in April. And if we start reaching out more, we can do this. I didn’t understand the term ‘grass roots’ before this campaign, but now I do. And we’re talking to everyone about why this matters.”

Republicans say they’re just as galvanized at the threat of a Democratic takeover in what once was a GOP fortress.

Gayle Calhoun is working to fortify her territory most every weekend. A recent Saturday brought her to the Taste of East Cobb, where she handed out fliers pushing Republican campaigns in a sprawling church parking lot.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Calhoun, a Cobb County real estate agent. “Look, everyone is watching the long-term impact of Ossoff. We just need to be patient. We just need to hang together and be very strong, and we’ll hold out.”

A search for a formula

Many Democrats are already looking to Ossoff’s campaign as a guide to how to compete in conservative areas.

A former congressional aide, Ossoff pushed a “stand up to Trump” message early in his campaign. Now he largely favors moderate-sounding promises to cut wasteful spending and create jobs.

There will be ample opportunities to test that strategy in Georgia.

Clinton carried 17 state legislative districts now held by Republicans, and Democrats are already lining up to challenge them. Sally Harrell, a former state legislator, announced this month she would run for a Dunwoody-based state Senate seat. The party is grooming more candidates to enter other contests.

Republicans invite their opponents to try to use Ossoff as a template for how to compete in conservative areas. Maddie Anderson of the National Republican Congressional Committee said Ossoff has “zero accomplishments” and that he doesn’t live in the district he’s trying to represent.

“If that’s magic,” she said, “then I hope the Democrats are David Copperfield.”

Some Georgia Democrats quietly worry that an Ossoff defeat could derail the enthusiasm. But a victory would keep them energized through next year’s midterms.

“That’s why the Ossoff race is so important,” Turkheimer said. “It’s symbolically taking something back from Trump.”