Ossoff’s embrace of Bernie Sanders highlights shift for Georgia Democrats

When Jon Ossoff was asked at the tail end of a CNN interview about Bernie Sanders’ endorsement, the Senate candidate’s answer was unequivocal. And it underscored a strategic shift as Georgia Democrats compete for control of the U.S. Senate in twin Jan. 5 runoffs.

“I welcome his support,” Ossoff said of the Vermont senator. “His advocacy for ensuring that healthcare is a human right in this country, for putting the interests of working families over corporate interests is welcome, is necessary, is appreciated. And so is his support.”

Three years ago, when Ossoff was running to flip a Republican-controlled suburban Atlanta House district, the Democrat would likely have sidestepped the question by saying he was focused on Georgia-centric issues.

That was a different race and a different political environment. Now, as Ossoff and Raphael Warnock try to recreate the coalition that narrowly boosted Joe Biden to victory in Georgia, the two are trying not to alienate voters who identify with Sanders’ self-described brand of democratic socialist politics.

Just as Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are embracing polarizing national figures, including President Donald Trump and Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Democratic candidates are no longer as skittish about being tied to their party’s liberal leaders.

Ossoff and Warnock both campaigned with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the runup to the November vote, and staged a rally with former President Barack Obama on the eve of the election. Democratic strategists say it’s possible all three will return to Georgia, along with other party leaders.

It’s a notable shift in Georgia, where Republicans have long campaigned with national leaders – including a string of 2024 hopefuls who visited in November ahead of the runoff -- while Democrats have more often shunned them.

When Obama visited Atlanta weeks before the 2014 election, for instance, it was considered shrewd political strategy for top Democratic candidates to steer clear of an appearance with him on the tarmac.

That started to change in 2018 when Stacey Abrams assertively tied herself to the party’s liberal wing and its national leaders.

In the closing days of the race, she campaigned with Obama and other party stars to mobilize voters who usually skipped midterm races. She was defeated in the closest gubernatorial race in Georgia in decades.

The approach also fuels more attacks from Republicans eager to paint their adversaries as too extreme for Georgia. Within minutes of his CNN appearance, Perdue’s campaign sent out a press release slamming him for “casually praising radical socialists and their dangerous agendas” in TV interviews.

“Ossoff isn’t hiding his radicalism, he’s telling us who he really is,” said Perdue spokesman John Burke. “We should believe him.”

And Savannah Viar of the Republican National Committee urged Ossoff to appear on more Sunday shows “so you can tell Georgians even more about your shameless support for self-described socialists.”

Democrats point out those attacks were incoming long before Sanders endorsed Ossoff, and they’d likely continue whether he accepted his endorsement or not. That’s what happened to Ossoff in 2017, when he was branded a Nancy Pelosi “yes man” even when he sought to distance himself from the California Democrat.

Ossoff and Sanders differ on key policy debates – notably, the Georgian opposes the Green New Deal climate change plan and the Medicare for All healthcare proposal that Sanders championed.

But Ossoff said on CNN he would work with Sanders on other issues, including efforts to back a $15 minimum wage, invest in clean energy and “look out for ordinary working people for a change instead of people who have bought access and power in Washington.”