One week after he lost the most expensive congressional contest in American history, after “getting some sleep,” Jon Ossoff had a message for his fellow Democrats.
They were on the right track.
“Democratic turnout was extremely strong,” Ossoff said in his first interview since the race ended in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. “In an off-year special election, we got general election-level Democratic turnout, and I think that’s been lost in the coverage.”
Ossoff, who at age 30 raised close to $30 million for his first-ever campaign, was destined either to be his party’s latest star or latest martyr. A margin of fewer than 10,000 votes made him the latter — as well as the star of hot takes about how the party needed to reboot.
Some Democrats said it was time to oust Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader who starred in most of the race’s Republican ads. More criticized Ossoff for a runoff race that swerved from attacks on President Trump to economic development in Atlanta’s suburbs. A spot in which local businessmen described what tax credits could do for the district was compared to ads for DeVry University.
“Nobody forced Ossoff to dismiss single payer, or held a gun to his head and made him use dog-whistle language about ‘both parties in Washington’ wasting taxpayer dollars,” wrote D.D. Guttenplan in the Nation.
What the critics miss, Ossoff said, was that the Democratic base did come out after hearing his message. “I missed an outright win in April by less than 4,000 votes, then we added 32,000 votes,” he said. “Democratic turnout and excitement were high, and we won the majority of independents — that’s a testament to our economic message. I was talking about bringing more jobs and opportunity to Georgia.”
Was it necessary to run ads about deficit reduction but not the Republicans’ push to repeal the Affordable Care Act? “News flash: The federal government is not the most efficient institution in the world,” Ossoff said. “Taxpayers know that. Folks across the spectrum wants more efficient management of their tax dollars.”
The Georgia race, said Ossoff, did not develop into the Trump referendum (or health-care referendum) that critics said that he lost. “None of the messaging battles that dominate national discussion of Democratic politics were rearing their heads here,” he said.
Despite the attacks on his area of residence — slightly outside the district, to make life easier for a fiance finishing medical training — Ossoff argued that most Republican attacks fell flat. His campaign’s polling found his favorability rating staying high, above 50 percent, through the runoff.
“That speaks to how weak and soggy their attacks were,” said Ossoff. “Democrats were united, and we built a coalition that included most independents in the districts.”
Pollsters who had him winning saw the same numbers. The mistake they made was in missing a Republican turnout surge, which at least one local Republican official credited (in part) to the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), which had Republicans doubling down on the message that a vote for Ossoff was a vote for radicalism. One of the final crucial days of the race was spent on coverage of white powder sent to Handel’s home, with a threatening message — the origin of which has not yet been determined.
Ossoff declined to gauge the impact of the shooting on his race. “I honestly don’t know,” he said, dropping the subject. “It was a neck-and-neck race all the way through.”
He was also unmoved by theories that began to spring up before the election that crackdowns on the voter rolls or archaic voting machines might take the election away from him.
“I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the election,” he said. “I did hear anecdotal reports of robocalls misinforming people about Election Day, but I have faith in Georgia’s election infrastructure.”
The inarguable factor in his loss, said Ossoff, was the gush of Republican money that came in to help Handel. It came in the form of paid door-knockers who got out soft Republican votes and in an ad barrage that matched what Ossoff had on the air. Some of those ads attacked Ossoff for being funded by out-of-state donors.
“If you watch the first debate, that’s how I counterpunched — that her campaign was being bailed out by Washington super PACs,” he said. “Look, we demonstrated here that small-dollar fundraising can go toe to toe with the power of right-wing super PACs funded by mega donors and the lobbyist cartel in Washington. I know it was ironic that mega-donor-funded outside groups were funding those attacks, and it speaks to the structural challenge that Democrats have.”
Ossoff has not yet decided whether he’d be part of the pushback in 2018. He would make no decision about where he lived, he said, until his fiance finished her education — next year.
“This campaign demonstrated the potency of a grass-roots political model that will allow people power to counter special-interest power,” said Ossoff. “The national right-wing apparatus just had to spend nearly $20 million defending a seat that was supposed to be safe. I don’t think they should take much comfort in that. Trump and [White House adviser Steve Bannon] were sweating over this race, and they should be sweating into 2018.”