Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old Democratic candidate for Georgia’s 6th district special election to replace now-Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, has Republicans spooked. Desperate to keep the House seat, they are throwing everything at the wall in the hopes of stopping Ossoff’s momentum.
This election wasn’t supposed to be close. A Democrat hasn’t won the seat since 1976, and Tom Price has won with over 60% of the vote since he was first elected in 2004. But Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory has reinvigorated grassroots progressive engagement, turning this special election into a symbolic referendum on the (illegitimate) Trump presidency. Though Ossoff is largely trying to focus on the typical issues – the economy, healthcare, civil rights, reproductive rights, national security, the environment, education, criminal justice, and corruption – his campaign is also explicitly capitalizing on the unpopularity of Donald Trump, telling voters that he will “hold Donald Trump accountable” and adopting the slogan “Make Trump Furious.” This strategy has paid off, literally – the campaign has brought in $8.3 million, largely from out-of-state donors. This is massively important given that Republicans have vastly outspent Democrats in the 6th district elections.
Ossoff has been polling in first for the past month with around a 40% plurality of the vote. However, this is far from a guarantee of victory. This special election is a jungle primary, meaning that all candidates will be running on the same ballot. There are almost twenty candidates, and if none receives over 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two candidates. Polling has consistently shown Republican Karen Handel in second place with between 15% and 25% of the vote. Runoff polls show an extremely tight race between Handel and Ossoff, with neither receiving a majority of the vote.
In response to Ossoff’s grassroots success, big money Republicans have poured millions into the race. A Paul Ryan-aligned GOP super PAC spent over $1 million on an ad attacking Ossoff for goofy college antics such as playing Han Solo in a Star Wars re-enactment.
But recently, the attacks have gotten darker, even more desperate, and over $2 million more expensive. GOP super PACs as well as the Georgia Republican Party are now attempting to capitalize on the Islamophobia and racism that helped elect Donald Trump (through the Electoral College) by trying to link Ossoff to terrorists. During his time as an investigative filmmaker, Ossoff worked with the award-winning news broadcaster Al Jazeera on documentaries about subjects such as unlicensed abortions doctors in Nigeria and foreign food aid fraud in Ghana. An anti-Ossoff TV attack ad misleadingly uses footage of ISIS and Osama bin Laden to tie Ossoff’s work with Al Jazeera to terrorism, while ominous pamphlets claim that Ossoff “can’t work for us” since he is apparently working for sponsors of terrorism.
Jon Ossoff campaign manager Keenan Pontoni responded to the recent attacks with disgust: “This smear attack is truly shameful. Jon served as a national security aide, had top secret clearance and he’s proud of his work as an investigative filmmaker working for outlets all over the world like the BBC, Skyvision, and yes, Al Jazeera.”
The National Rifle Association is also pouring money into opposing Ossoff now, releasing an attack ad so inaccurate Georgia radio station WYAY-FM had to edit part of it out. Even Trump’s chief strategist, white nationalist Steve Bannon, has stated that he’s paying close attention to the race.
While the newest Republican tactics may persuade Islamophobes and gullible gun obsessives, Ossoff’s momentum with progressives has not stopped. The US Elections Project found that as of March 31, over twice as many Democrats have voted than Republicans. This is unusual for non-presidential year races, where voters tend to be older and whiter, meaning far more conservative.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Ossoff will win the first ballot, or even the run-off, which is essentially inevitable. Given the ridiculous number of Republican candidates, the conservative vote is split, and it’s entirely possible that Republicans will end up uniting around Karen Handel, the top GOP candidate.
But with Republicans in control of Congress, the White House, and the majority of state governments, this race simply does not have as much weight for many conservatives as it does for liberals.
While this one election cannot definitively prove how powerful the anti-Trump resistance is, an Ossoff victory, especially on the first ballot, would be a great sign for Democrats hoping to retake the House in the 2018 midterms.