The anti-Trump resistance is lifting up Jon Ossoff's campaign. Can it carry him to a win?
Like many politicians, Jon Ossoff, the Democrat leading the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, says his campaign is not all about him. Unlike other politicians, he's actually right.
Though his political opponents paint Ossoff as a political neophyte, the 30-year-old comes off polished and experienced in conversation. He can speak knowledgeably about health care and foreign policy, critiquing the national security implications of President Donald Trump's travel ban, for instance. And when asked about an ad run by a Republican Super PAC that features pictures of him in college dressed as a Star Wars character, Ossoff deftly parlayed the criticism into a humanizing quip.
"I welcome the comparison to Han Solo," he said in a phone interview.
Despite his natural political abilities, though, even Ossoff knows that if he wants to win the conservative district once held by current Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, he'll need the broader anti-Trump grassroots movement backing him.
"This grassroots energy is essential to winning elections and then to holding elected officials accountable once they're in office," Ossoff said. "I'm honored to be working with so many inspiring and motivated people — most of it led by women in this area, by they way — to win this election, and I will then expect them to hold me accountable once I'm elected."
Across the country, grassroots organizing against the Trump agenda has surged to unprecedented levels. Beginning with the largest political march in American history the day after Trump's inauguration, the Women's March on Washington, grassroots groups and social movements have continued to pressure elected officials, demonstrate and make their voices heard.
Many, however, have wondered whether that energy can be channelled into votes, especially in upcoming congressional elections where the anti-Trump movement will have to win in conservative, often gerrymandered districts in order to gain any influence in Washington. Ossoff's race will be a major test not only for the young candidate, but for the electoral muscle of the sort of grassroots activism that, in the Trump era, exploded into American streets and airport terminals alike.
One of those organizing women in Ossoff's area is Rosalind Zee, a co-organizer for the social justice organization Resist and a member of the grassroots Flip the Sixth campaign. According to Zee, the grassroots leaders decided they needed to endorse a candidate early in the race and Ossoff was their man. "We knew we didn't have a lot of time," she said, referring to herself and other organizers.
Because of Georgia's "jungle primary" system, members of both parties all compete against each other in one crowded field with the top two contenders facing off against each other in the general. That meant that if Democrats in the conservative district split their votes between multiple candidates they could end up with a general election between two Republicans.
The grassroots organizers were quickly drawn to Ossoff because of his progressive policy positions and his experience working for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) They've been running a parallel campaign to get Ossoff elected ever since.
"When I worked for other campaigns, there weren't as many grassroots organizations," Zee said. "That has really taken off like wildfire, all these grassroots movements that want to preserve [the Affordable Care Act] or are fighting for women's rights."
Zee described the effort outside the campaign as a vast coalition of grassroots groups from new anti-Trump movements like Indivisible — the decentralized movement born out of a popular guide to pressuring elected officials — to older, more established movement groups like Resist, many of whom are working overtime to get Ossoff elected.
"We've got women working around the clock." Lesley Bauer, another grassroots organizer in Georgia's 6th Congressional District, said. "I work 40 hours a week and then organize 40 hours a week so we're running on peanut butter and a prayer."
Recently, Bauer co-founded an organization with three other women called PaveItBlue, which aims to engage and activate Georgia women and mothers who wouldn't normally get involved in politics. "A lot of women can't go to a phone banking that is held at a campaign office on a Monday evening that is from 5:30 to 8 because they have children, they have work. But they can do all these other things," Bauer said. "We've got women that organize to go canvass and then go have a drink afterwards — moms' night out."
The movement organizations are running a host of different efforts, from traditional door knocking and handing out fliers to more unconventional methods of organizing. According to Lee, organizers use tools like Minivan, a mobile canvassing app to coordinate outreach, and leverage social media sites like Meetup.com to attract young progressives to their campaign.
Bauer described what she called a "liberal laundry service," a pooled bulk laundry service set up by organizers so they can have more time to work on campaigning.
"For all the talk of division in the Democratic Party, this campaign has united the grassroots and the party at all levels." - @ossoff
The online movement to elect Ossoff extends beyond the boundaries of Georgia's 6th Congressional District. Thanks in part to boosts from national online progressive communities and websites like Daily Kos, Ossoff's campaign has benefitted from a high volume of grassroots fundraising.
"We've raised more than $3 million in average contributions of less than $30," Ossoff said, in a line reminiscent of Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose improbably successful presidential campaign raised more small dollar donations than Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. "I've been endorsed by End Citizens United and I hope that this campaign can be a model for how grassroots fundraising can rival fundraising by corporate interests. I'm honored by the support of folks who are willing to dig deep and send some of their hard earned money to the campaign."
Despite his Sanders-esque fundraising, Ossoff largely stayed out of the 2016 campaign fight, and quietly voted for Hillary Clinton. Though much has been made of the continued tension within the Democratic Party and what it means for grassroots progressives, Ossoff sees his campaign as an opportunity to unite the party establishment and the base.
"I've got a great working relationship at all levels," he said. "I think one of the things that I'm proudest of is that for all the talk of division in the Democratic Party, this campaign has united the grassroots and the party at all levels. Everyone is pulling in the same direction."
Grassroots organizers agree, and some see Ossoff's campaign as part of a broader movement to shift Georgia's politics over the long haul.
"I'm one of those people who, in the past, used to think when a special election or a midterm election came up, 'Why should I even vote? I live in an overwhelmingly red state,'" said Bauer, the organizer. "I could vote for a Democrat all day long and it's not going to make a difference."
Now Bauer sees the current grassroots energy in Georgia as a sort of political "awakening" that could continue to shift politics in Georgia for the duration of the Trump administration and beyond.
Ossoff, for his part, seems to genuinely understand the importance of the movement around him and how it can motivate his campaign. When Trump's initial travel ban came down, barring people from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., Ossoff's political consultants cautioned him against joining the rally of raucous protesters at the Atlanta airport. Ossoff decided to go anyway and show his support.
"There is tremendous excitement in the community here to make a shared statement about what we believe in," Ossoff said. "Now is the wrong time in history not to stand up on principle out of political fear."