Jon Ossoff is chief executive of Insight TWI and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.
On Nov. 9, Americans awakened to a startling reality: In the absence of broad, enduring citizen engagement, the door is left open for darkness to creep in and gain a foothold in our democracy.
Amid that awakening, I launched my improbable campaign for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. It grew into something bigger than I could have imagined.
Here in Georgia, in a district considered safe for Republicans for decades, we built a grass-roots organization powered by thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of small-dollar donors.
The right wing’s national apparatus fully mobilized to defend the status quo in Washington at any cost. I was defeated. But we put up a hell of a fight.
Grass-roots politics, linking small-dollar fundraising to massive local volunteer organization, showed that it can rival the power of a right-wing machine comprising super PACs backed by entrenched interests and mega-donors. These outside groups were forced to spend nearly $20 million defending a seat gerrymandered never to be competitive.
From the beginning I believed that to compete in this district we had to run a different kind of campaign — a campaign that put grass-roots organizing and personal contact with voters above all else. And our campaign tapped into and grew a grass-roots movement the likes of which Georgia had never seen before. This community stood up with undaunted fighting spirit, participating in the largest field program ever run in a U.S. House race and driving a get-out-the-vote effort that brought Democratic turnout in this special election up to general election levels.
The campaign reached out to tens of thousands of voters who had never heard directly from a campaign before. Some 10,000 more people voted for a Democrat in this off-year special election than did for Barack Obama in this district in 2012. Thousands of Democrats and new voters considered extremely unlikely to turn out made their voices heard.
The intraparty disputes that dominate national commentary on Democratic politics were nowhere to be found in the 6th District. On the ground, Democrats were committed to strike the first blow of this new era on behalf of decency and progress.
We ran an economy-first campaign centered on local prosperity and opportunity. I focused on the development of metro Atlanta into a world-class commercial capital, on affordable higher education and technical training, on research and development to drive innovation in Georgia’s tech sector, on renewal of our transportation infrastructure and a commitment to fiscal responsibility, on pointing out that taxpayers are rightfully upset that the federal government wastes hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
We paired this economic platform with an unwavering support for a woman’s right to choose, Americans with preexisting conditions, criminal-justice reform, Medicare and Medicaid, voting rights, immigration reform, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, anti-corruption efforts and U.S. leadership to fight climate change. We built a coalition that generated massive Democratic turnout, engaged communities long ignored by local political leadership, and final vote tallies will likely show that we won a majority of independents. And in districts like Georgia’s 6th, we will not compete unless we build coalitions.
I remained committed to civility and optimism throughout the campaign, and I remain committed to civility and optimism now. Hope, decency and unity are not mere catchwords. They’re essential to the defense of our republic at a time when hatred and deception have become the dominant forces in American politics.
It’s difficult to convey the depth of my gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of people who made this effort possible, giving new voice and agency to thousands of Georgians. In particular, the extraordinary determination and hard work of female activists here in Georgia was the beating heart of the campaign. The grass-roots organization that we built neighborhood by neighborhood is intact, battle-hardened and ready for the future.
We lost, but I am proud of the campaign we ran, and I am proud of my community for standing up against the odds. I launched this campaign believing that America can become stronger, more prosperous and more secure only if we stay true to the values that unite us. I still believe that, and I’m not done fighting.