The Trump presidency appears to be ending the way it began: with Jon Ossoff in the national spotlight. After falling short in a blockbuster and expensive 2017 special election for a congressional seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, the 33-year-old documentary filmmaker is back with his eyes on a bigger prize: a seat in the United States Senate.
Even before his 2017 congressional campaign, Ossoff was no stranger in Atlanta politics. As a teenager, he worked in Congressman John Lewis’ office in Washington. He was also a speechwriter and a national security aide to Congressman Hank Johnson. After his time on Capitol Hill, he became the CEO of a documentary film company based in London. The company, Insight TWI, produced films about war crimes in the middle east.
After Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, he announced that he would be nominating Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price to be the Secretary of Health & Human Services. Price’s nomination and eventual confirmation triggered a special election for Georgia’s 6th District, a one-time Republican stronghold in the north Atlanta suburbs. Mitt Romney won the district by over 23 percentage points in the 2012 election, but Donald Trump severely underperformed here, only winning the district by 1.5% over Hillary Clinton. His performance enticed Democrats to make a huge play for the district.
Georgia special elections are required to be held as jungle primaries, similar to the system that Louisiana has used for decades. All candidates in the GA-06 special ran on the same ballot and the top two would advance to a runoff if no candidate received more than 50% of the vote. The special election saw several Republican candidates run, from former state legislators to city councilmembers. Ossoff entered the race early and his fundraising prowess scared other Democratic candidates out of the race. He finished first in the jungle primary, though he narrowly fell short of the 50% threshold required to win the election without a runoff. The second-place finisher was Karen Handel, a Republican who served as Georgia’s Secretary of State and ran in an intense GOP primary for Governor in 2010.
In the runoff, Ossoff was lambasted and mocked for his lack of experience. Republicans said that he would be a “rubber stamp” for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and chastised him for not living in the district (he said that he lived just outside of the district with his wife while she was finishing medical school). He attempted to steer clear of the Republican attacks by running a campaign centered around local issues. But he narrowly fell short in the end, losing to Handel by about 4 percentage points. The special election, which tallied at roughly $55 million, was the most expensive House race in U.S. history, with Ossoff himself raising over $30 million when all was said and done. Handel would go on to lose re-election in 2018 to Democrat Lucy McBath.
Ossoff was widely speculated as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2020 and he formally kicked off his campaign in the fall of 2019. He entered the race with the massive donor and volunteer base that he had built during his 2017 run for Congress. However, he was not the only candidate in the primary. Among the other candidates running were former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and 2018 Lieutenant Governor Nominee Sarah Riggs Amico. A third candidate, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, ran as the progressive favorite but dropped out shortly before the primary after failing to gain enough traction. Ossoff managed to narrowly avoid a runoff, winning the Democratic primary outright with roughly 53% of the vote. Tomlinson and Amico finished at a distant second and third, taking 16% and 12%, respectively.
In the general election, Ossoff faces Republican Senator David Perdue. First elected in 2014, the 71-year-old Perdue is a wealthy former Fortune 500 CEO and is the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who serves as Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture. Ossoff has labeled Perdue as a “caricature” of corruption and has attacked him for his refusal to hold town halls. Perdue has come under scrutiny for stock sales that he made after attending a classified briefing on the threat of COVID-19, and has been accused by critics of insider trading. Ossoff has slammed Perdue for these sales and went viral at one of their debates for calling the Senator a “crook.” Perdue has defended himself, saying that he was cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation from the Senate Ethics Committee. Perdue was also heavily criticized after he attempted to mock Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ name at a Trump rally. Ossoff received a major fundraising boost in the hours and days following the incident.
Much like he did when he ran for Congress, Ossoff faced attacks on his lack of experience. Perdue has also touted the recent coronavirus relief package, saying that he delivered results while Ossoff and the Democrats obstructed. Republicans have also said that Ossoff’s media company has extremist ties, and have accused him of hiding the company’s connections to China. “Jon Ossoff won’t hold China accountable. He works for them,” said one Perdue attack ad.
In the general election, neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote, so the race advanced to a runoff on January 5. The runoff has merely been an extension of the general election, with both candidates leveling the same attacks at each other. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the amount of money and national attention that the race is receiving. Ossoff is once again flexing his fundraising muscles. Over the Christmas holiday, he reported raising over $100 million since election day in November, the largest haul of any Senate candidate in U.S. history. Perdue reported raising $68 million in the same time span.
This race will be of course one of two runoff elections in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate. If Ossoff were to win, he would be the first Democrat to win a full term in the Senate from Georgia since Max Cleland in 1996. He would also become the youngest Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate since Joe Biden, who was 30 years old when he was sworn in. This race not only has national implications, but it will be a huge test for the 33-year-old Ossoff. Can he translate his national stardom and fundraising skills to a victory on election day next Tuesday?
(This post was updated to correct the year Max Cleland was elected)