In House race in Georgia, Democrats look
for new path to power
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[June 16, 2017]
By John Whitesides
DUNWOODY, Ga. (Reuters) - Democrat Jon
Ossoff no longer talks about making President Donald Trump furious.
But he may be on the verge of doing just that.
Ossoff, a political newcomer who launched his congressional campaign in
the Republican-leaning northern suburbs of Atlanta by urging supporters
to "make Trump furious," now speaks in the measured tones of a moderate
consensus builder and rarely mentions the president by name.
Local economic development and cutting wasteful government spending are
Ossoff's talking points in a race against Republican Karen Handel that
has shattered records as the most expensive congressional contest in
U.S. history. Polls show it is headed for a tight finish in Tuesday's
An Ossoff victory would rattle Republicans already nervous about next
year's congressional midterm elections, and offer Democrats a template
on how to campaign in suburban swing districts as they try to erase the
24-seat Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
"It would send a very strong message across the country that we can win
these kinds of seats," said Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan
Democrat who campaigned with Ossoff in Georgia this week.
Democrats have much riding on the outcome. On the surface, conditions
seem ripe for a nationwide Democratic renaissance, with a historically
unpopular Republican president entangled in an investigation for
possible obstruction of justice and the Republican agenda largely
stalled in Congress.
But Democrats lost two special House elections earlier this year in
conservative Kansas and Montana districts that Trump won by double
digits last November. A failure in a more competitive district in
Georgia, which Trump carried by just 1 percentage point, would be a
morale killer for a party that has struggled to develop a coherent
message beyond "We're not the party of Trump."
Democrats have steadily lost ground in recent years in state and local
races. Republicans not only control the White House and both chambers of
Congress, but also hold 33 governor's offices, the most in nearly a
Infighting between grass-roots progressives and the party's more
mainstream wing has plagued Democrats, who have appeared increasingly
vulnerable to Republican attacks portraying them as coastal elites out
of touch with working-class Americans.
Ossoff's "Make Trump Furious" slogan quickly endeared him to national
anti-Trump activists and pushed him well ahead of 17 rivals in polls in
April's non-partisan primary in a district represented by Republicans
It wasn't enough. The 30-year-old former congressional staffer and
documentary filmmaker fell just short of a majority, and outright
victory, forcing a closely watched run-off against Handel for the House
seat vacated by Tom Price, the new secretary of health and human
services who was first elected to the House in 2004.
But the grassroots enthusiasm has made Ossoff a fundraising machine. He
raised a stunning $24 million by the end of May, five times the amount
raised by Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state. Republican
outside groups have helped her make up some of the difference, spending
nearly $9 million on her behalf, according to fundraising reports.
Total spending has approached $40 million, obliterating the previous
record of $30 million for a Florida congressional race in 2012.
While he benefits from the grassroots anti-Trump fervor, Ossoff has
deliberately avoided making the race a referendum on Trump. On the
campaign trail and in ads, he promises to work with Republicans and
focuses on his plans to bolster local economic development, protect
access to healthcare, particularly for women, and cut wasteful spending
to pay for new priorities.
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Georgia's Sixth District Congressional candidate Jon Ossoff speaks
to his supports at his Election Night party in Sandy Springs,
Georgia, U.S. on April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry/File Photo
Ossoff said voters in the district are not demanding that he lead an
"I think voters are more concerned with accountability and results
than they are with political drama," he said in an interview after a
meeting with millennial supporters.
While voters' concerns about the administration have grown, he said,
"Fundamentally what folks are looking for is representation that
will work across the aisle to deliver a higher quality of life."
Handel, who also rarely mentions Trump and has argued that the race
should be about who has the values and experience to best serve the
district, says Ossoff is misrepresenting himself.
"He's trying to portray himself as something that he is not. He is
Nancy Pelosi's hand-picked candidate," Handel told reporters this
week after greeting diners at a local hamburger restaurant,
repeating a line about House Democratic leader Pelosi that has
featured prominently in attack ads against Ossoff by outside groups.
"He is an ultra-liberal. His values do not align with this
district," she said.
Some of her supporters agree. Terry Anderson, 67, a retired IT
worker from Cobb County, said he did not believe Ossoff was sincere.
"He sounds more like a moderate Republican all the time," he said.
But Brenda Carswell, 61, a retired American Express employee from
the city of Tucker who said she typically has switched back and
forth between Republicans and Democrats - "I've voted for some
Bushes and I've voted for some Clintons" - said she is backing
"He's been mostly discussing issues that people care about. The
problems in our area are more important than most of what they talk
about in Washington," she said.
Trump, who visited Georgia to raise money for Handel in late April,
is watching closely. On Twitter, he criticized Ossoff, and after
Ossoff was forced into a runoff he crowed that Democrats "failed in
Kansas and are now failing in Georgia." Trump called the race
"Hollywood vs. Georgia."
Several recent polls have given Ossoff a slight edge heading into
Tuesday, while showing that there are few voters who are still
Democrats say the increasingly diverse area exemplifies the sort of
educated and affluent suburban district that Democrats will need to
win to recapture the House.
Georgia-based Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson said Ossoff's
non-ideological messaging should be a model for a party that needs
moderates, independents and disaffected Republicans next year.
"He's done a good job of positioning himself as a sensible
Democrat," he said. "He doesn't need to tell voters what is wrong
with Trump - people see the drama and the problems every day."
(Additional reporting by Grant Smith in New York; Editing by Jason
Szep and Leslie Adler)
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