Three years after bursting onto the political scene and becoming a Democratic cause célèbre, Jon Ossoff is back on Georgia ballots hoping for a different result.
Ossoff became a national figure in the most expensive House race in history, narrowly losing a special election for a seat in the Atlanta suburbs six months after President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Though he lost, Democrats flipped the district a year later as part of their 2018 midterm wave.
Now, Ossoff is the frontrunner in Tuesday's Democratic Senate primary in Georgia, a state with both Senate seats on the ballot that is also an emerging battleground for Democrats at the presidential level. He's counting both on the small-donor base he built in the 2017 race and Georgia's shifting political orientation to produce a different result against first-term GOP Sen. David Perdue. But first, he faces a crowded field of primary rivals.
“There's no doubt that having run and narrowly lost the biggest congressional race of all time has given me perspective that's valuable,” Ossoff said in an interview.
“A fight well fought can be worth what you build in the process, even if you lose that battle,” he added. “And with two Senate seats, with the presidential tangibly investing here — this is Georgia's year."
In contrast to Ossoff's 2017 defeat, Tuesday's primary has received little national attention — or outside spending — compared with races in North Carolina, Maine, Iowa and elsewhere. It’s the only major primary where national Democrats have decided not to throw their weight behind a candidate despite heavy party involvement in other nominating contests.
Ossoff is the clear favorite to finish first Tuesday, holding a lead in public and private polling and a massive financial advantage. The biggest question is whether he can cross the 50 percent threshold to win outright, or whether the race will go to an August runoff. Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and businesswoman Sarah Riggs Amico are the two other best-known and best-funded candidates competing for support among the seven-candidate field.
Public polling has shown Ossoff below the 50 percent mark, and Democrats are divided on his chances to win outright Tuesday, according to conversations with more than a half-dozen Democrats in Georgia and Washington following the race. A runoff could mean less time for the eventual nominee to raise money and build a campaign to challenge the well-funded Perdue.
Georgia has not been atop Democrats' targeted races, but it could boost the party's chances to retake the chamber. If Joe Biden wins the presidency, Democrats need to gain three seats in order to capture the Senate — and with a potential loss looming in Alabama, the party has worked to expand the map of targets to include burgeoning battleground states.
The primary was originally scheduled for May but was moved and consolidated with the presidential primary because of Covid-19. And while massive turnout is expected largely through mail-in ballots, a large number of voters never received their requested absentee ballots.
It has also been overshadowed by the special election for the state’s other Senate seat, given the GOP infighting between Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins. But that race won't appear on the ballot until November, with all candidates regardless of party running together.
Unlike in other states, where national Democrats have successfully helped shepherd their chosen candidates through nomination fights, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hasn’t endorsed in Georgia. Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee who has become a potential vice presidential pick, has endorsed Senate candidates in other races but has not taken a side ahead of Tuesday in her home state.
Ossoff, who is CEO of an investigative journalism company, has run on an anti-corruption message and also leaned on his support from prominent Democrats in the state, including Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson. Lewis, the civil rights icon, is featured heavily in Ossoff’s TV ads, and the campaign's closing spot focuses on the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man shot in Georgia earlier this year, with a radio version also featuring Lewis touting his endorsement.
Most Democrats expect Tomlinson to finish second in the race and challenge Ossoff in the potential runoff, though polling has shown Amico in contention. Tomlinson, who was mayor of Columbus for two terms, has run on her government experience in a state she described as "politically transitioning."
She also hasn’t shied away from attacking Ossoff, calling him inexperienced and knocking his previous election loss, arguing the party should nominate a candidate who has won before.
“At some point, we have to come to the realization that he has all the name recognition a man can have, but for whatever reason he just can't garner that 50-plus-one,” she said. “There's no way we can go into the general election in this pitched political battle to transform the state of Georgia to a purple state at least with a candidate that weak.”
Amico, who was the party’s lieutenant governor candidate in 2018 running alongside Abrams, has leftover name identification from that race and has strong support from labor groups in the state that could boost her in the closing stretch. She has mostly self-funded her campaign and has run on her experience as a businesswoman, arguing that perspective would be a benefit in the current economic downturn.
“We’re proud of the campaign we’ve run to stand up for access to affordable health care and justice for marginalized communities,” Amico said in a statement provided for this report.
Ossoff's campaign has spent more than $2 million on TV, compared with just over $670,000 for Tomlinson and nearly $530,000 for Amico, according to data from Advertising Analytics. He outraised Perdue in the previous seven weeks, according to recent Federal Election Commission filings, though the incumbent maintains a substantial cash advantage over the Democratic field.
Perdue's campaign is eager to set expectations high for their most likely opponent.
"With his massive advantage in ad spending while public polls show him leading his primary opponents by wide margins, it would be a surprise if Jon Ossoff doesn't win his party's nomination outright” on Tuesday, said John Burke, a spokesperson for Perdue.
Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the DSCC, did not address the committee’s lack of endorsement in the race, but said in a statement that Perdue is a “weak incumbent,” and Republicans “are losing ground across the Senate map, and Georgia is no exception.”
The runoff would be in August, and while most Democrats downplayed that it could jeopardize their ability to be competitive in the fall, some expressed concern. One Georgia Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said the trouble would come if the runoff candidates “focus on tearing each other down versus keeping their eye on the prize.”
“If I'm Perdue, I keep my head down and let them go after each other and not do or say anything. Just keep raising money,” this Democrat said.
Republicans, who are in a precarious position to hold their Senate majority, are confident about facing Ossoff and argue anything other than an outright primary win shows weakness.
“He’s been propped up by special interests and his own ego for years, and he still thinks he has a future in elected politics,” said Matt Gorman, a GOP strategist who was communications director for House Republicans' campaign arm during Ossoff’s prior race.
Ossoff, for his part, ignores those attacks. After facing tens of millions of dollars in negative spending during his House run, he thinks they’ll have little impact now.
“They can talk all the smack they want," Ossoff said. "Bring it on."