There’s a hell of a lot riding on Democrat Jon Ossoff’s virgin bid for elected office. The 30-year-old former congressional aide and documentary filmmaker is running in a special election for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District—a seat once held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and recently vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. This affluent suburban district outside Atlanta used to be solidly Republican—it hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress since 1979, and Mitt Romney carried the district by 23 points in 2012—but Hillary Clinton nearly beat President Donald Trump there in last November’s election. Now, buoyed by a record $8.3 million in fundraising thanks to help from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other national Democrats, Ossoff has turned his race into a tossup—and potentially the party’s first big victory of the Trump era.
Republicans are increasingly worried about their ability to hold the seat against a man who urged his supporters to “Make Trump Furious” in his first major email fundraising pitch. Should Ossoff win—either by clearing 50 percent in the first round of voting on April 18, when nearly 20 candidates face off, or winning the expected June 20 runoff—there’s no question his victory would be a rare ray of hope for a demoralized minority party in dire need of young talent.
But many in the national media, and some on the political left, think this race has even bigger implications. New York magazine recently labeled Ossoff the “Trump-Hate Weather Vane,” with writer Olivia Nuzzi calling Ossoff’s campaign “an experiment of sorts, a Trump-backlash trial balloon that might ... tell us just how much the president has reshaped the electoral map. It may also tell us that Democrats will have to do a whole lot more than just ride the wave of Trump hate to have a real chance of puncturing House Republicans’ red wall in 2018.” The New York Times similarly called the race “an early test of Democrats’ ability to capitalize on Mr. Trump’s polarizing presence,” reporting that “the contest is viewed as a major test of whether a wave of left-wing activism since Mr. Trump’s inauguration will produce change at the ballot box.” CNBC and Vox wrote much the same, and David Nir—political director for the liberal blog Daily Kos, a primary driver of Ossoff’s national fundraising—told CNN the race “very well could be a test case for the future of Democratic targeting.” “It’s a bellwether for what the Democratic Party is going to be about,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told the network, which described him as “almost giddy about the prospects for the race.”
Exciting as Ossoff’s victory would be for Democrats early in Trump’s presidency—and for national media outlets in an off-year with few compelling elections—there’s plenty of reason to doubt his campaign will be a predictor of the party’s success, or failure, in turning anti-Trump sentiment into electoral gains. That Democrats across the country are investing so much money and emotional energy in Ossoff says more about the party than it does about this particular race.
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader of the Georgia House, understands the temptation to put so much weight on the upcoming special election. “You have this veteran of the conservative movement who gets called up to the White House to serve,” she said of Price, “and in walks this charismatic, smart, attractive young man, who carries with him the hopes and dreams of Democrats across the country.” But Abrams, who says Ossoff’s race “certainly has the ability to act as a barometer for our national affairs,” nonetheless argues “it’s dangerous to try to use one moment as emblematic of an entire national mood.”
The danger for Democrats, specifically, is that a loss could advance the narrative that the Trump resistance is weaker than expected. As Politico reported last month:
Just a few high-profile losses in races framed as referendums on the Trump agenda, Democrats fear, and the currently heightened level of engagement and hope might fall off the cliff.
“I would caution heavily against resting the entire future of a party on the outcome of a special election,” warned Rebecca DeHart, the Georgia Democratic Party’s executive director.
“These special elections can be flukey,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the election analysis website Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told me. “I’m always necessarily leery of attaching too much importance to these specials, particularly since the midterm is so far away.” Historically, Kondik notes, some special elections for Congress have foreshadowed midterm gains for both parties. After Gerald Ford left the House to be vice president in 1973, Democrat Richard Vander Veen managed to win his solidly Republican district in Michigan. Sabato’s Crystal Ball described that election as “an electrifying victory that foreshadowed the Democratic Watergate landslide of November 1974.” More recently, former Representative David Jolly won a narrow victory in his Florida district in 2014, foreshadowing Republican pickups that fall.
But there have also been plenty of special elections that foreshadowed nothing, such as the Democratic victory of former Representative Mark Critz from Western Pennsylvania in May of 2010. The Associated Press reported at the time: “An aide to the late Democratic Rep. John Murtha won a special election to fill the final months of his boss’s term—a nationally watched contest considered a potential bellwether for this fall’s midterm election.” Democrats got demolished in the midterms later that year.
The way Kondik sees it, the Ossoff campaign is “this perfect storm where Democrats who are still shell shocked from Donald Trump’s victory are looking for some outlet for their rage.” Democratic challengers in 2018 are unlikely to raise the amount that Ossoff has, and they will face sitting members of Congress with the advantage of incumbency. “It’s different when you’re running in an open seat than when you’re challenging, say, a Barbara Comstock or Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,” Kondik said, naming a pair of Republican congresswomen from districts Hillary Clinton won last fall. “There are some pretty talented Republican incumbents in these frontline seats.”
“I don’t think the results in Georgia’s Sixth should tell us that these other districts are going to be more or less competitive,” Kondik concluded. “It may be that these are optimal conditions for Ossoff, and other Democrats may not be able to replicate that next year unless it’s a wave environment.”
Even Keenan Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager, pushes back on the national significance of the election’s outcome. “I really think this race is actually about the community engagement we’re seeing in the district,” he told me. “Whether that’s something we’ll see across the country remains to be seen.... I know the amazing people here in this district and all the amazing work they’re doing. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case in every battleground district in 2018.”
Jim Galloway, a political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told me his focus on April 18 won’t be on Ossoff but on Republican voters. While many of the 11 GOP candidates are competing to be the most pro-Trump, Republican frontrunner Karen Handel is campaigning as more of an independent voice. “She’s not anti-Trump,” Galloway said of the former secretary of state of Georgia, “but her history has been anti-good-old-boy in the state capital.” Pollsters predict Handel and Ossoff will face off in the June runoff. A Handel victory then, Galloway said, would be “a demonstration of Trump antipathy among Republicans.... or at least an acknowledgement that you need somebody who could be a check on Trump.”
This isn’t to say an Ossoff win would be insignificant for Democrats nationally. In addition to picking up a House seat, the party would earn positive press that could drive fundraising across the country. Though Ossoff’s approach to the Sixth District wouldn’t be directly transferable to the 23 additional seats Democrats would need to flip to reclaim the House majority, they’d be able to draw lessons from him.
“I think the first lesson is that heavy investment in races that are winnable pays dividends,” said Abrams, who argues Democrats should spend more money in Georgia in general. “This is the kind of district that Democrats need to compete in to win future House majorities,” Kondik said, noting that “the Democratic Party has become not just urban-centric but suburban-centric.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein told me Ossoff “could be the case study for how a moderate Democrat runs in a red district.”
There’s certainly some irony in the fact that this supposed beacon of the Trump resistance is actually running as a pragmatic centrist, stressing that “cutting wasteful spending is not a partisan issue” and “both parties in Washington waste too much of your money.” As Nuzzi reported in her New York profile, he is “a radically boring person to talk or listen to, especially compared with the fiery rhetoric of Trump or Bernie Sanders.” But Bluestein said, “I think other candidates in districts like this one will probably model his rhetoric.”
Bluestein admitted he was once skeptical of Ossoff’s chances. He figured Republicans would win easily in this special election. But as a resident of the Sixth District who grew up there, he said the energy is unlike anything he’s seen. Asked whether Ossoff will clear the coveted 50 percent threshold, Bluestein is cautious but not dismissive. “I still don’t think he will,” he said, “but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.”
If Ossoff pulls off that feat, or defeats Handel in the runoff, many will hail it as a harbinger of the 2018 midterms. If Ossoff loses, it will be interpreted as a major blow to the Democratic opposition to Trump. Both narratives would be wrong.