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The Enduring Mystery of Jon Ossoff

Some call the Georgia Democrat "a moderate Republican." Others say he's a serious progressive dressed up as a centrist. One thing's for sure: Ossoff has become a Rorschach test for a desperate, divided party.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The beleaguered Democratic Party may finally have cause for hope in the Trump era. According to the latest polling, Jon Ossoff is poised to win the special House election against Karen Handel in Georgia’s historically Republican Sixth Congressional District. His election would be the first major electoral victory this year for Democrats, who lost two earlier special elections, and would be a testament to his massive fundraising haul, the organization of the nationwide anti-Trump resistance, and the candidate’s apparently shrewd political strategy.

But even as Democrats are largely united in rooting for Ossoff, there’s no clear consensus among them—or among the media—on what his victory would mean for the broader party, especially as it pertains to the persistent rift between its progressive and centrist wings. There’s not even any consensus on where, precisely, Ossoff resides on that political spectrum. Which is why Ossoff’s campaign has become a political Rorschach test of sorts, revealing more about observers’ motivations and the party’s divisions than it does about the candidate himself.

The most common interpretation of Ossoff’s success is that, to quote Handel, he “talks like a Republican.” The Weekly Standard dubbed Ossoff “a political Janus, flirting with progressives while campaigning like a moderate.” National Journal political editor Josh Kraushaar similarly attributed Ossoff’s strength to “run­ning like a mod­er­ate Republican—hardly talk­ing about Pres­id­ent Trump”:

For all the talk about the power of the in­creas­ingly-strident left-wing base, Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives re­cog­nize that the way to win elec­tions is through woo­ing in­de­pend­ents and per­suad­able voters. The key voters in up­com­ing con­gres­sion­al and gubernat­ori­al con­tests are sub­urb­an­ites, many of whom have little af­fin­ity for Trump but want to hear a pos­it­ive agenda from the op­pos­i­tion. They’re also wary of a left­ward lurch—tone-deaf­ness on the ter­ror­ist threat, open­ness to single-pay­er health care, to name a couple of ex­amples—that seems to be gain­ing trac­tion with­in the Demo­crat­ic Party.

It’s true that Ossoff hasn’t distinguished himself as a populist firebrand or leftist ideologue, but rather as a “mild-mannered, centrist candidate,” in the words of Ed Kilgore, a New York magazine columnist and former policy director for the now-defunct centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Ossoff’s campaign ads focus on “working with anyone” and cutting wasteful government spending and the national deficit. He “has often eschewed progressive politics to campaign on fiscal responsibility and ‘sense over nonsense,’” as The Washington Post put it. “He has appealed to progressive Berniecrats primarily by positioning himself against Trump,” Mother Jones observed, “but without pushing their core platform positions like single-payer health care, free tuition, or steep taxes on the rich.”

Given Ossoff’s apparent moderation, Nation editor at large D.D. Guttenplan concluded thata victory for Ossoff, who has run a cautiously centrist campaign, would hardly be a vindication for progressives.” That conclusion is implicitly supported by a member of the party’s centrist wing: Jim Kessler, co-founder of the think tank Third Way, told me approvingly that an Ossoff win would mean the Democratic promise of being a big tent party is being kept.”

Like Kraushaar, Kessler argues that the “big tent” approach is vital to Democratic rebuilding—and that ideological purity tests by the party’s activist base are electorally ruinous. Both observers see a cautionary tale in Rob Quist, a more overtly populist progressive Democrat who lost a special House election in Montana last month—even though his opponent body-slammed an American reporter on the eve of the election. “I think we have to be honest with ourselves,” Kessler said. “He was probably too liberal to win that state. Democrats have won Montana. They’re usually more centrist.” “The problem with left-wing populist candidates,” said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, “is they have trouble reaching over and appealing to independents and moderates.”

Progressives push back at the idea that Quist’s ideology cost him his race. The New Republic’s Sarah Jones noted that Republicans and their allies vastly outspent Democrats in that contest. “Quist was an unusual candidate, but eerily suited for a state like Montana,” she wrote. “He is known to voters thanks to his popular folk music band and his family ranch. That, and his cowboy hat, may be enough to qualify him as ‘quirky’ to people who do not live in rural places, but it probably did not bother the people of Montana. Nor is his loss likely due to his left-wing platform.” Political commentator Sally Kohn brushed aside a “hypothetical counter-factual where there’s no proof.” “We don’t know who else could have won in Montana,” she told me. It’s worth noting that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $5.8 million on Ossoff’s race, compared to the $340,000 it spent on Quist’s. At the same time, there was logic to these choices: Trump won Montana by 20 points in November while carrying Ossoff’s district by less than two.

Some Democrats believe Ossoff is winning in spite of his centrist rhetoric, not because of it. “If Jon Ossoff wins despite his milquetoast policy proposals and his Republican-lite campaign, it will be because the resistance wanted to defeat Trump,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America. Those don’t sound like the words of an Ossoff supporter, and yet, Chamberlain’s group is campaigning for him; there’s a massive Ossoff fundraising banner on its homepage. Chamberlain confesses he’s “disappointed” by Ossoff’s centrist rhetoric. “In general, he hasn’t been an economic populist,” he said. And he rejects what he calls the “ridiculous” argument that populism doesn’t play well in certain parts of the country. “There’s no reason why people shouldn’t be running on that same Warren-wing vision in every district,” he said.

But other champions of that vision have a less critical read on Ossoff. “He’s not running as a moderate,” insisted Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “He’s running on progressive ideas with politically popular local framing.” Green noted that Ossoff has made defending Obamacare a centerpiece of his campaign, and argued that Ossoff “will support very popular economic populist ideas” and “continue to have generally progressive values and be a good voice for how to talk about those values in different parts of the country.” Green drew a comparison to Democratic politicians like Senator Jon Tester in Montana, who is “good at advancing a brand of prairie populism back home that doesn’t always sound like Elizabeth Warren but basically lands in the same place in terms of the policy nuts and bolts.” “That’s what we need more of in the Democratic Party,” Green said.

On policy substance, Ossoff isn’t a departure from Democratic orthodoxy. His rhetoric on spending reductions is about getting rid of duplicate programs, not slashing the social safety net. Some of the left-wing grumbling may have more to do with his cautious—some might say vague—messaging, which leaves critics and supporters alike to draw their own conclusions about his ideological principles.

And yet, in The New York Times on Sunday, Ossoff did clearly represent what the paper called “growing tension between the party’s ascendant militant wing and Democrats in conservative-leaning terrain,” offering “a decidedly un-Sanders-like vision of the future” with “essentially anti-ideological” presentation.

Bucking the left, Mr. Ossoff said in an interview that he would not support raising income taxes, even for the wealthy, and opposed “any move” toward a single-payer health care system. Attacked by Republicans for his ties to national liberals, Mr. Ossoff said he had not yet given “an ounce of thought” to whether he would vote for Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, in a future ballot for speaker.

“The tension between Mr. Ossoff’s message and the appetites of the national Democratic base has not appeared to hinder his bid for Congress,” the Times acknowledged. “It is unclear, however, whether Democratic activists across the country will tolerate an army of Ossoff-type candidates in 2018, when party leaders believe the path to capturing the House runs through purple-hued suburban districts that are somewhat less Republican than Georgia’s Sixth.” Democrats will continue to debate whether a red-district Democrat should be pushing economic populism further. Progressives say it’s a better bet; Trump, after all, won the Republican nomination despite promising to protect the safety net (a promise he has since betrayed). Centrists caution against it—and point to losing Berniecrats like Quist as evidence.

But many Democrats on both sides of the party divide acknowledge that congressional races are case-by-case scenarios. I’m resisting the simple narrative line that you’ve got to put up a centrist in red zones to win,” Marshall, a centrist, told me. “The quality of your campaign matters. ... A popular liberal could do better than an unpopular moderate.” Kohn, a proud progressive, admitted, “Those of us in the bubble think the public cares about the minutiae of the policies and policy positions more than they do. ... We’re in a moment when personality trumps policy because of the nature of our media and short attention spans.” It’s further proof that even as these special elections have aired these Democratic divisions, they haven’t come close to resolving them.