CreditPHOTOGRAPH COURTESY JON OSSOFF FOR CONGRESS
Last Saturday, Jon Ossoff, a tall, skinny, thirty-year-old candidate for the U.S. Congress with Kennedy-ish features and a deliberate, Obama-like manner of speaking, was scheduled to knock on doors in Roswell, a city in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. Over the past three decades, the district has been represented by Newt Gingrich, current Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, and Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price’s appointment to the Cabinet left the seat empty, and a special election to fill it will be held on April 18th. The Sixth encompasses many of Atlanta’s wealthy and mostly white northern suburbs, and has long been considered a Republican lock; in 2012, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by twenty-four points in the district. But in the most recent election Donald Trump edged Hillary Clinton by just a single point here. Ossoff thinks he can turn the sixth blue, and claim the first congressional win against Trump on the G.O.P.’s own turf.
Jere Wood, the longtime Republican mayor of Roswell, disagrees. “This isn’t a youth vote up here,” he told me at his office, when I asked him about the makeup of the Sixth. “This is a mature voter base. If someone is going down the list, they’re gonna vote for somebody who is familiar.” He paused. “If you just say ‘Ossoff,’ some folks are gonna think, ‘Is he Muslim? Is he Lebanese? Is he Indian?’ It’s an ethnic-sounding name, even though he may be a white guy, from Scotland or wherever.”
Ossoff is indeed a white guy, though he is not from Scotland. His father is a Jew of Russian-Lithuanian descent who owns a specialist publishing company, and his mother is an Australian immigrant and management consultant who co-founded a nonprofit aimed at electing women—of either party—to political office in Georgia. “Our name was probably truncated at Ellis Island,” Ossoff told me. “From something like Ossoffsky.”
His parents still live in the Sixth. Ossoff resides ten minutes south, where his longtime girlfriend can walk to class at Emory University’s medical school. Growing up, Ossoff attended a small Atlanta private school called Paideia, where his college counsellor, John Stubbs, remembers him as a “tenacious defender” on the Ultimate Frisbee field and the founder of a politics blog called the Great Speckled Pi (a reference to an underground Atlanta paper published in the sixties and seventies). “I was sort of an amateur essayist,” Ossoff told me. “Politically inspired by the second Iraq war,” which he opposed. “He read The Economist, my God, in high school!” Paul Bianchi, Paideia’s headmaster, told me. Ossoff was also unafraid to challenge his elders. Bianchi recalls cancelling school due to snow one year. “And I got a short e-mail from Jon, about five minutes later. All it said was ‘Wuss.’ ”
In high school, Ossoff interned with the congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis, whose memoir, “Walking With the Wind,” deepened his interest in politics and social justice. Ossoff considers Lewis his mentor, and it was Lewis, he said, who “told me that if any Democrat can win the Sixth, you can.” Lewis’s subsequent endorsement helped—as did online support from celebrities such as Debra Messing and George Takei. Ossoff has raised nearly two million dollars since declaring his candidacy, in early January. Roughly half of that sum has come from the efforts of liberal Web site the Daily Kos, which explains its support of Ossoff this way: “Flipping this seat from red to blue would send shockwaves through Congress—and replacing Trump’s anti-Obamacare point man with a Democrat would be an amazing little cherry on top.”
Earlier this week, a G.O.P. super PAC made an ad buy of more than a million dollars for an anti-Ossoff spot that features footage of Ossoff pretending to be Han Solo, from “Star Wars,” while attending Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. “Just another college kid dressing up with his drinking buddies,” a disappointed-sounding narrator says, reminding wary voters of Ossoff’s youth. “That I’m being attacked means this race is winnable,” Ossoff told me. “They know they might lose this seat.” Ossoff’s other college activities included an internship with the Democratic congressman Hank Johnson, who represents Georgia’s Fourth District. Ossoff eventually became Johnson’s deputy communications chief, campaign manager, and military legislative assistant. Then, after receiving a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, he joined a firm specializing in anti-corruption investigations around the world. He’s now the C.E.O. of Insight TWI, which produces documentaries about global issues. But he spends most of this time, these days, on the campaign.
There are currently eighteen candidates in the race. All of them—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—will appear on a single ballot; if no one clears fifty per cent of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff on June 20th. Eleven of the candidates are Republicans, including Georgia’s well-known former Republican secretary of state, Karen Handel, and former state senators Dan Moody and Judson Hill. Wood, the Roswell mayor, is confident that a Republican will win, though he has no idea which one. And, he added, “When the mayor is clueless, most folks are clueless.” Wood has allowed four different Republican candidates to put signs in the grass near his office.
The conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who lives in Macon, Georgia, has been watching the race closely. “The candidates who are probably going to do the best are the ones who run on an accountability platform,” he told me. “The ones who say ‘I was with Trump’ probably aren’t going to do as well.” Erickson doesn’t think the Democrats have much of a chance. “I know they’ve poured a lot of money in and may be able to get Jon into a runoff, but this is a very Republican district,” he said. “I think Democrats have misread the Trump election. This district went for Rubio, sizably, in the primary,” he noted, suggesting that its constituents favor establishment Republicans, like many of those in the current race. “And since it’s such a short race, and it’s all about name recognition, I think Karen Handel probably has the advantage over everyone else.” The Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint recently told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that the “numbers just aren’t there yet” for the Democrats.
Were Ossoff to win, it would be the first time a Georgia congressional seat has flipped in a special election since 1872. DuBose Porter, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, can’t endorse Ossoff by name with other Democrats still in the race, but his language strongly suggests that he favors the thirty-year-old. “We have a number of candidates, but I think it will take a young, energetic visionary candidate to succeed,” he told me. “This is a national race,” he added. “There will be resources coming from all over the country.”
Ossoff’s campaign says that some six thousand volunteers have pledged their support for him so far. Two hundred or so showed up in Roswell to canvas on Saturday. There was a lawyer draped in an American flag; a seventeen-year-old girl who had been involved in the Clinton campaign; a twelve-year-old boy who said “Ossoff seems cool”; and three of Ossoff’s friends from Paideia, who will be filming his campaign over the next two months. They talked among themselves about immigrant rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and their antipathy for Donald Trump, a feeling that Ossoff shares—but has muffled, as he wages a “respectful campaign dedicated to local issues before national politics,” as he put it.
Small groups gathered around Ossoff’s thirty-year-old campaign manager, Keenan Pontoni, and I heard someone whisper, “He reminds me of David Axelrod!” Pontoni went over door-knocking protocol: “Things to know about Jon that I hope you can bring up at the doors, and are mentioned on the script: First, that he was a national-security expert and aide with top-secret clearance, fighting to stop corruption and cut waste. He did that several times as a congressional aide. Second, that he’s a business owner, who’s had to balance budgets and make payroll. Third, and probably most importantly, he has, throughout the world, exposed corruption and saved lives against ISIS; he has exposed sex trafficking; he has done amazing things through his investigative career. Right now, more than ever, we need somebody who knows how to fight corruption in Washington.”
A volunteer raised his hand and spoke. “Hey, Keenan, I’m sorry, can you say his name for us again?
The candidate arrived an hour later, straight from a Dems and Doughnuts gathering in nearby Cobb County. He shook hands, posed for pictures and caught up with his high-school buddies. “There were way more Dems than doughnuts at the meeting,” Ossoff’s communications director, Andy Phelan, told me. “I’ve never seen enthusiasm like this in a congressional race.”
Rolling up his sleeves, Ossoff went door to door with two staffers and a cameraman, carrying a tin of Ice Breakers mints in his pocket. We were in Pine Valley Estates, a leafy Roswell neighborhood with big yards and barking dogs. The first door opened and an eager man in his thirties responded to Ossoff’s polite entreaty—“Hi, I’m running for Congress and would appreciate your vote”—with a welcome message: “Hey, screw Donald Trump, dude. I’m voting for you!” Ossoff hadn’t even had time to explain his progressive positions on women’s issues and health care, or his moderate stances on jobs and security. “That was easy,” he said. But, at the dozen or so houses that Ossoff tried over the next half hour, most residents simply didn’t answer. He put fliers in their doors and headed back to the office park, to find out how his beaming canvassers had fared.