Ossoff sharpens tone in second run for office

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff has only recently begun holding in-person campaign events because of the coronavirus. Mostly, he's had to work out of his Grant Park home. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff has only recently begun holding in-person campaign events because of the coronavirus. Mostly, he's had to work out of his Grant Park home. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Editor’s note: This updated profile of Democrat Jon Ossoff is part of a series of stories about the candidates running in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. Another story focuses on Ossoff’s Republican opponent, incumbent U.S. Sen. David Perdue. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has also published profiles of the candidates in the state’s other Senate race, Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock.

It wasn’t long after news broke that U.S. Sen. David Perdue traded stocks in a submarine parts manufacturer that Jon Ossoff went on the offensive, blasting his Republican opponent for “corruption and self-dealing” because of his position leading a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Navy.

“This conduct is utterly inexcusable,” Ossoff said in a pair of Nov. 19 tweets. “Ban Senators from trading individual stocks. Period.”

If there’s a unifying theme to Ossoff’s second congressional bid and his day job running an investigative film company, it’s this: Washington is profoundly corrupt. Special interests control the agenda. Lawmakers often prioritize their own self-interest and the donors who cut large campaign checks over the voters who put them in office.

ExploreU.S. Senate Perdue seat candidate profiles

The poster child of this broken system, in Ossoff’s telling, is Perdue, the first-term incumbent he’s hoping to unseat in a Jan. 5 runoff that’s made headlines around the world. That’s because the race, along with a parallel Georgia contest involving Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock, will determine which party controls the Senate.

Ossoff sharpened his line of attack long before he emerged from June’s Democratic primary with a commanding victory over two opponents. And the intensity has only increased since he kept Perdue at just under 50% of the vote on Nov. 3 — enough to force a nine-week overtime battle under Georgia law.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters at a socially distanced event. He's focused his campaign on the treatment given to special interests. “Does the government serve the people," he said, "or does it serve those who can buy access?” Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters at a socially distanced event. He's focused his campaign on the treatment given to special interests. “Does the government serve the people," he said, "or does it serve those who can buy access?” Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But in his quest to become the Senate’s youngest member since 1981, Ossoff, 33, must overcome several major obstacles.

A Democrat hasn’t captured a Georgia U.S. Senate seat in 20 years. GOP-allied groups are plowing tens of millions of dollars into the race, pouncing on Ossoff’s every statement to paint him as a left-wing radical and entitled rich kid.

Looming large is Ossoff’s near-miss bid for the U.S. House in 2017. The special election made him a household name but also linked him in the minds of some voters to unpopular national figures such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“I really don’t sweat the attacks,” Ossoff said, reflecting on the 2017 contest, which broke national fundraising records and became a proxy battle over President Donald Trump. “I’ve sort of been through a race about as intense as a race can get, and it helps me keep things in perspective during this campaign.”

This time around, Ossoff is positioning himself as a reformer who will address the country’s deep-rooted inequalities, expand the Affordable Care Act and bring accountability back to Washington. He’s emphasized he’d be a willing partner to President-elect Joe Biden, especially on legislation that would take a proactive response to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, improve infrastructure and bolster voting rights.

Political beginnings

The 2017 special election was Ossoff’s first run for elected office, but it wasn’t his first jaunt into politics.

Shortly after reading the memoir of civil rights icon John Lewis as a high schooler, Ossoff wrote the Atlanta congressman asking for a job. Lewis brought the then-16-year-old Northlake resident on for an internship and a few years later steered him toward an underdog U.S. House candidate in need of help on the campaign trail.

It was 2006, and DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson was leveling a primary challenge against Democratic incumbent Cynthia McKinney, who had stoked controversy after a run-in with a U.S. Capitol police officer and by implying 9/11 was a hoax.

Johnson prevailed and offered Ossoff, then a Georgetown University student, a position as a legislative aide. Ossoff stayed on Capitol Hill for six years, an experience he describes as educational and rewarding but also “deeply disillusioning.”

Johnson at the time was a member of the powerful Armed Services Committee, and Ossoff became disheartened by the sway defense contractors held with the panel. He also chafed at the nonstop fundraising and extent to which party leaders and the executive branch called the shots.

Jon Ossoff walks with his then-girlfriend-and-now-wife Alisha Kramer after speaking to supporters during his unsuccessful bid in a 2017 special election for the U.S. House. Democrats from across the nation ralled behind Ossoff in that race, helping him raise tens of millions of dollars. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Caption
Jon Ossoff walks with his then-girlfriend-and-now-wife Alisha Kramer after speaking to supporters during his unsuccessful bid in a 2017 special election for the U.S. House. Democrats from across the nation ralled behind Ossoff in that race, helping him raise tens of millions of dollars. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Ossoff used an inheritance from his grandfather to buy an ownership stake in a small London-based investigative film company he had once interned for, which he renamed Insight TWI.

He had escaped the Washington political game, but Trump’s election was a call to action. Ossoff had been in touch with Lewis and Johnson in early 2017 when Georgia Congressman Tom Price was tapped to be secretary of health and human services, opening up his suburban U.S. House seat.

Ossoff entered the special election shortly thereafter, armed with endorsements from Lewis and Johnson, a “make Trump furious” message and $250,000 in seed money.

Pensive, circumspect and unknown to Georgia politicos, the then-29-year-old was an unlikely candidate for a district that Republicans had safely carried for decades. But Democrats from across the country rallied around him to vent their frustration over Trump, donating tens of millions of dollars to his campaign — an unheard of sum for a newcomer — and Ossoff nearly won the race outright due to a fractured GOP field.

When he faced Karen Handel in the runoff, Ossoff pivoted to the center to try to win support from moderates and disaffected Republicans but ultimately came up short following visits on behalf of Handel by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and then-House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Return to the trail

In the years since, Ossoff dove back into his documentary work and married his high school sweetheart, OB-GYN resident Alisha Kramer. The state’s strict new abortion restrictions and his company’s films exposing international corruption sparked his interest in challenging Perdue.

Ossoff’s campaign has since raised tens of millions of dollars toward that goal, even as the pandemic left him doing most of his work from his Grant Park home for much of the spring and summer.

The candidate on the trail this year is much more at ease than the one who traversed Atlanta’s northern suburbs three years ago. Ossoff is more unapologetic about embracing liberal policy ideas than his Democratic predecessors during past statewide races. And where he once hesitated to hit Trump directly, he now pulls no punches as he seeks to tie Perdue to his White House ally.

One recent campaign ad features clips of Perdue echoing Trump’s messaging about the relative lack of harm of the coronavirus even as fatalities climbed.

“Two-hundred-thousand Americans have died from a disease that he told us posed low risk to our health,” Ossoff said of Perdue in October.

Like many Democratic candidates this year, health care is one of Ossoff’s top campaign issues. He’s vowed to safeguard Obamacare and add a public option, and he used the issue to frame what was at stake during this fall’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation battle over Amy Coney Barrett.

U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff arrives for a September event hosted by the Georgia Federation of Democratic Women and the DeKalb Democratic Women in Stone Mountain. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff arrives for a September event hosted by the Georgia Federation of Democratic Women and the DeKalb Democratic Women in Stone Mountain. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

He’s relentlessly hit Perdue for refusing to debate him ahead of the runoff after a clip of Ossoff calling the senator a “crook” at a previous event went viral.

Ossoff’s efforts to appeal to rural Georgians — he ran an ad earlier this fall pledging to protect the Second Amendment and the state’s military bases — have been subject to ridicule from the GOP, as has his youth and family’s wealth, despite the fact that Perdue is a multimillionare.

Republicans have sought to link Ossoff to another millennial politician, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other liberals they warn will usher in socialism, and they’ve frequently described the Democrat as a “trust fund socialist” and an empty suit.

The Perdue campaign has also seized on comments Ossoff made linking federal law enforcement funding to achieving certain standards as evidence that he wants to defund the police. (Ossoff flatly denies that.) And they’ve made hay with remarks Ossoff made at a forum earlier this year in which he said that candidates who indulge in Trumpian-style politics are “not just going to get beaten. You’re going to get beaten so bad, you can never run or show your face again in public.”

“As America unites to beat a pandemic, Ossoff speaks hate,” a recent Perdue ad states.

Republicans have picked apart the clients of Ossoff’s documentary firm, including Al-Jazeera and a Hong Kong media network, and falsely claimed the Democrat was endorsed by China’s Communist Party.

Since the general election, Ossoff has embarked on a busy statewide tour, rallying supporters in Athens, Macon, Savannah and elsewhere after keeping his modest pre-November travel schedule largely confined to metro Atlanta.

Ossoff has ground to make up in the runoff. He pulled in roughly 100,000 fewer votes than Biden in the general election, and Perdue was a hair away from winning the contest outright with 49.7% of the vote. Democrats have struggled to draw their supporters back out for statewide runoffs over the past three decades.

Working in tandem with Warnock, Ossoff’s campaign is aiming to excite the party’s base, including voters of color and young voters who tend to turn out less in elections without a presidential contender on the ballot. His team is also focusing on registering the estimated 23,000 young Georgians who have turned 18 since Election Day.

On the trail, Ossoff has sought to paint a sunny vision of a Biden administration with a friendly working partner in the U.S. Senate.

“We’re feeling hope right now because we’re waking up and realizing the nightmare is over,” Ossoff told a crowd in Savannah recently. “And now it’s up to us. That’s why these races matter so much.”