Georgia Democratic Senate challenger Jon Ossoff raised a whopping $21 million in the third quarter, but arguably two of his biggest in-kind contributions came from his opponent, Senator David Perdue. In late July, Perdue released an ad that enlarged the nose of Ossoff, who is Jewish, and linked him to Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and big money, which many people understandably saw as anti-Semitic. (Perdue’s campaign first denied the alteration, then blamed it on a vendor.) Then, last week, he mocked Kamala Harris’s name while introducing Donald Trump at a Macon rally—“KAH’-mah-lah? Kah-MAH’-lah? Kamala-mala-mala? I don’t know. Whatever,” he joked, to the crowd’s cheers. The nationwide backlash helped raise Ossoff almost $2 million in two days.
“Senator Perdue’s intentionally disrespectful mispronunciation of Senator Harris’s name is a bigoted and racist tactic straight from President Trump’s handbook,” said Georgia Democratic Party chair Nikema Williams. “He owes Georgians an apology for his offensive display.” Of course, he did not apologize; staffers insisted he meant nothing by it. As if after almost four years in the Senate together, he couldn’t pronounce her name.
Right now all respected polling aggregators list the race as a toss-up, an astonishing setback for Perdue, who beat Democrat Michelle Nunn 53-45 in 2014 and was leading until recently. But Perdue, the outsourcing business leader who styled himself as an outsider, became a Trump worshipper in 2017—and his fortunes have declined in Georgia with the president’s. Barely a week ago, rallying with Ivanka Trump, he claimed that Trump’s leadership on coronavirus “saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” adding, “Democrats will never give us credit for that.” Meanwhile, his ads declare him to be dedicated to police reform and protecting Georgians with preexisting conditions; with Trump sinking in Georgia, he is clearly playing both sides. It’s not working.
Ossoff, an investigative journalist who runs a media company focused on documenting war crimes and corporate abuse and also a former Democratic congressional aide, jumped onto the national scene when he ran in a 2017 special election to fill Representative Tom Price’s suburban Georgia House seat, after Price was tapped by Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services (briefly; he was one of the first Trump picks felled by scandal). Ossoff’s candidacy was propelled by the early backing of the late civil rights icon Representative John Lewis, as well as a then-unheard-of anti-Trump mobilization of suburban women, mainly but not exclusively white, in Georgia’s Sixth District. He almost beat anti-abortion, anti-voting-rights crusader Karen Handel, but got forced into a runoff with her, which he lost narrowly.
Despite his inspiring grassroots support, Ossoff was criticized on the left, outside his district at least, as too cautious and centrist. Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed him late, and tepidly, although Georgia voting rights crusader (and almost governor) Stacey Abrams told me at the time, “What Jon understands is that being progressive in the South looks different than it does in other states. We have to work with, not just against.” At the time, and to this day, the “cautious centrist” label irks Ossoff. To combat it, he announced his Senate candidacy in an interview with Ryan Grim in the (mostly) left-wing Intercept. “Do you think that the fossil fuel and private prison industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and every corporate-funded Republican Super PAC in the country spent tens of millions of dollars attacking me [in 2017] because they believed I was going to support their agenda?” he asked Grim. “They recognized I was a threat to their stranglehold on the legislative process.”
Ossoff is still trying to walk a narrow path: appealing to Georgia’s increasingly diverse and progressive Democratic electorate, while still reaching those suburban white voters, mainly women, some of them ex-Republicans, who almost sent him to Congress in 2017. He still opposes Medicare for All, for instance, but backs a vast expansion of the Affordable Care Act, including a generous public insurance option. In his book We’ve Got People, Grim called Ossoff’s 2017 campaign “downright radical” compared to the traditional Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee template. Via e-mail, Grim told me: “My point in 2017 was that a Representative Jon Ossoff would never be your obstacle to M4A, even if he’s not out there championing it. You build the mass support, he’ll be there, and that’s just as true for a Senator Ossoff.”
This year, Ossoff has centered his campaign on the corruption of both Trump and Perdue—the Georgia senator, with a blighted corporate past as CEO of Dollar General, last January bought stock in a personal protective equipment company on the very day he received a private Senate briefing on the impending Covid crisis—and the pandemic itself. It surged in the summer, thanks to GOP Governor Brian Kemp’s premature reopening, and is now surging again.
Ossoff is also benefiting from Abrams’s campaign, and her voting rights crusade. The group she founded, Fair Fight Action, says Georgia has added an astonishing 800,000 new voters since voter registration closed in October 2018—right before Abrams almost won. There’s more than one Senate race in Georgia this year: The retirement of GOP Senator Johnny Isakson has led to a free-for-all special election, in which Republicans Kelly Loeffler (the Kemp-appointed incumbent) and Representative Doug Collins are trying to out-Trump each other, as Democrat Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church, tries to sneak past them—and seems to be succeeding. Given Georgia’s complicated election laws, both races will go to January runoffs if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. So control of the Senate could easily come down to Georgia. Stay tuned.
But Ossoff’s focus seems to be paying off, and several unforced errors by Perdue are only helping. National pollsters have moved the race from a “likely Republican” win to a “toss-up”; his campaign says its internal polling shows him beating Perdue 50-45. The clearest sign of the threat he poses is that Mitch McConnell’s Senate Victory Fund has spent more to defeat Ossoff than to thwart any other challenger in the country—more than $32 million, representing one in every five dollars spent to date, according to The Daily Beast.
Still, Georgia’s storied history of voter suppression could stymie him and Warnock—and Joe Biden. Though early voting is off the charts—2 million Georgians have already cast ballots—there have been lines as long as 10 hours in majority-black counties like DeKalb. A Vice News investigation found that “the number of active voters per polling precinct in Georgia’s four most-populated counties [including DeKalb] averaged 3,271 per location, up from 2,402 in 2012. By contrast, the statewide average is 2,965 active voters per precinct.” Ossoff says he fears continued long lines from here through Election Day: “The people are undeterred, but the state of Georgia continues to disenfranchise its citizens. And it’s a disgrace.”
Our interview, below, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
JW: Stacey Abrams came within 55,000 votes of becoming governor in 2018. Many of us believe she would be governor if not for voter suppression. But how do you win this race if Abrams couldn’t win hers?
JO: Georgia becomes younger and more diverse by the hour. That new electorate is hungry for more progressive political leadership, unifying leadership, leadership that trusts science and empowers medical experts during a pandemic. Also, just looking at the last few years: In 2017, we swung Georgia-6th by 20 points; in 2018, Stacey Abrams’s historic gubernatorial built massive statewide infrastructure and Lucy McBath won Georgia-6th, and Carolyn Bordeaux came within 500 votes of winning in Georgia-7th. All of these huge battles have built massive political infrastructure. In 2020, we’re at the tipping point and a culmination of a decade’s work.
JW: What are your two biggest worries in terms of voter interference or suppression there?
JO: My two greatest concerns are the state’s implementation of its new electronic voting infrastructure—in particular the bandwidth issues that have plagued the check-in process—and whether the state has adequately resourced the majority-black counties of DeKalb and Fulton which have had massive lines.
JW: I’ve seen the early voting lines and they’re scandalous…
JO: Let me make clear this point, though: I’m inspired and moved by the way Georgia voters overcome obstacles put in their way, but at the same time deeply disgusted by the way Georgia forces its voters to wait 10 hours in line to vote. But the paradigm shift that Stacey Abrams led is this: Democrats used to play down this stuff, for fear it would deter participation. But we recognize now that when people are made aware that someone’s trying to take away their hard-won sacred rights, they’re galvanized in their determination to exercise those rights. So the people are undeterred, but the state of Georgia continues to disenfranchise its citizens. And it’s a disgrace.
JW: I first met the white female suburban resistance to Trump covering your 2017 race. The next year Lucy McBath won that seat, and Carolyn Bordeaux almost won, and is among the top-rated challengers in the district next door. Has that element of “the Resistance” continued to grow?
JO: Absolutely. The army of women who picked me up and carried me on their shoulders in 2017 and who knocked on millions of doors across the country in the midterms is very much active and engaged. And it’s a multiracial, multigenerational coalition. Black and white women are the beating heart of our ongoing efforts to change Georgia for the better.
JW: A lot of Democratic challengers, across the country, have talked to me about the tension between trying to reach, and persuade, formerly GOP suburban women who are on the fence, though, and digging in to mobilize so-called “low-propensity” voters—younger voters, and voters of color, who only turn out every so often. How is your campaign balancing that tension?
JO: There is no zero-sum game here. You don’t have to choose between broadening the Democratic Party’s tent and reaching out to voters in the suburbs who are exploring their political identities anew in the Trump era—and more Republicans realizing that the catastrophic incompetence and ludicrous narcissism of the president and his party is totally unacceptable—and making sure our policy agenda and our outreach efforts are centering black voters. First of all, the issues of concern to black and white families—health care costs, the level of support for ordinary families and small business in a pandemic like this, whether medical experts are being suppressed during a health crisis like this, and even civil rights and criminal justice reform—these are unifying issues with broad appeal across racial lines. We’re seeing a collapse of the GOP’s Southern strategy—Republicans have tried to divide people along racial lines to prevent the emergence of a multiracial coalition that recognizes shared economic and health issues and shares a commitment to civil rights.
And that’s what Senator Perdue mocking Senator Harris’s name is all about—it’s trying to resuscitate that Southern strategy, trying to resuscitate “us versus them,” us versus “the other,” and it’s just not working here anymore. It’s a multiraicial, multigenerational coalition with a shared sense of values that will carry us to victory.
JW: What is it like to be running with Reverend Warnock? I’ve been watching you two on social media. I know you have your own approach to black voters, but do you anticipate he is helping?
JO: I love running alongside the reverend—we’re running as a ticket, and we communicate every day. My entire career in politics has been working for the Congressional Black Caucus, working for Congressman Hank Johnson in DeKalb County, working for Congressman John Lewis, one of my mentors and close friends. Reverend Warnock and I have that connection going back. When I was talking about the collapse of the Southern Strategy in Georgia and the culmination of a decade’s work of political organizing in Georgia, there could be no more fitting culmination of that effort than to elect a young Jewish man mentored by John Lewis, and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, also mentored by Congressman Lewis, in the same year. The first time I ever had a meal with Congressman Lewis, what he wanted to talk to me about most was the relationship with Jewish and Black leaders, how he remembered marching alongside Rabbis and Jewish activists in the ’60s, and important that alliance was, and how he wanted me to be committed to deepening those bonds. And I think there’s something beautiful about this ticket at this time.
JW: It must have been hard to lose him this year.
JO: Oh, it was a gut punch. Just not to be able to call him for advice. The thing about Congressman Lewis was that he had a way of cutting through the noise to get to the root of an ethical or moral question. His moral compass was just so steady. He saw the world with moral clarity, not at the exclusion of understanding its complexity, but he was always able to get to the heart of the matter. His advice was unparalleled and his friendship was so generous.
JW: So assuming you’re elected to the Senate, a couple of controversial issues: Would you support getting rid of the filibuster?
JO: I’m open to discussing any proposed changes to Senate rules. But what are the implications when the shoe is on the other foot? It’s not just a yes-or-no question. But I rule nothing out and look forward to the debate. And just to be clear: I look forward to legislating on behalf of Georgia, not just getting mired in gridlock.
JW: What kind of oversight should the next Congress do in terms of… let’s say “alleged” crimes by Trump and his cabinet and staff?
JO: Well, for example, the policy of separating children from their parents at the border and disappearing them into a federal gulag? My business investigates war crimes—we’ve produced multiple investigations of ISIS atrocities against women and girls in Iraq; we’ve produced investigations of war crimes committed by “peacekeeping” troops. And if that happened in a war zone? It would be a war crime. And the officials who ordered the seizure of children from their parents? The forcible separation of families extrajudicially? There has to be accountability for that. I think we have to be prudent and consider the long-term consequences and potential impact on desperately needed reconciliation if we’re talking about going after a former president. But executive branch officials cannot plead that they were just following orders. There has to be accountability.
Editor’s Note: This article initially referred to Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler as appointed by President Trump. In fact, she was appointed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp. The error has been corrected.