Democrats have discovered something unexpected in Jon Ossoff, the 30-year-old first-time candidate from Georgia: a model for winning back the House majority.
Now they just need to try and replicate it — over the possible objections of the party’s liberal base.
If Ossoff wins Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, he’ll have done so because he harnessed the unbridled enthusiasm of the progressive left while carefully avoiding its most polarizing positions.
The fresh-faced House candidate has raised nearly $25 million, much of it from small-dollar liberal donors, even as he resisted progressive priorities, such as single-payer health care.
It’s an ideal combination in this wealthy Atlanta suburb, the kind of onetime Republican stronghold that Trump has made competitive and some Democrats see as their best chance to make big gains during the midterm elections.
But mimicking Ossosff’s approach might not be so easy. Already, Democrats are eyeing a constellation of primaries in key battlegrounds next year, races that could force the eventual nominees to adopt positions and rhetoric that leave them more vulnerable in a general election.
At least in districts like Georgia's 6th, the dynamic could complicate the party’s path to victory in competitive races.
"There will be many primaries this cycle because Democrats are energized by opposition to Trump and sense opportunity in his bad poll numbers," said Ian Russell, a former political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Candidates will have to carefully calibrate their messaging to make sure they are able to win the primary without alienating general-election voters."
Russell emphasized that it’s still too early in the election cycle to know for sure if the primaries will make life difficult for the party.
Too many primaries, in this case, might also be a good problem to have: The wave of anti-Trump energy that has swept through the Democratic Party has brought forth a new generation of candidates. In one example, EMILY’s List, the Democratic-aligned group that supports women who back abortion rights, says more than 15,000 women have contacted it about running for office.
That enthusiasm means Democrats might not have to worry about fielding credible candidates in even marginal races. But it also means many of them might seek the same office, and the subsequent intra-party contests — which would take place over the course of a year or longer — could pressure candidates to appeal to the party’s liberal base.
Ossoff effectively avoided Democratic opposition in his own race. Other Democrats ran, but the party, including neighboring Congressman John Lewis, coalesced early behind his candidacy and made him the de-facto nominee months before the first round of voting in April.
The absence of pressure from the left let him craft his own message, one that emphasized cutting wasteful government spending instead of single-payer health care. Ossoff’s own website doesn’t even announce support for increasing the minimum wage to $15, a favorite position of liberals, including progressive icon Bernie Sanders. Ossof’s site says the minimum wage should be increased "at a pace that allows employers to adapt their business plans."
He also has avoided direct criticism of Trump, and certainly has not suggested, as some Democrats have, that the party should consider impeachment.
"I’m willing to work with on issues of mutual interest, if it’s infrastructure, bringing jobs and investment to metro Atlanta," he told reporters Sunday, after stopping by one of his campaign’s field offices to encourage volunteers. (Ossoff also said he would oppose Trump whenever the president "embarrasses" the country.)
Republicans have consequently struggled to find fresh fodder for attacks, instead using well-worn criticisms that he’s a supporter of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and a liberal more at home in San Francisco than Georgia.
"He’s basically done a good job of being two different people," said one Republican operative. "The person the activist progressive base wants to throw huge sums of money at, and someone who wants to appeal to moderate voters in the district."
The more centrist tack hasn’t disappointed his supporters, either. In addition to raising an eye-popping $23 million through May, Ossoff has command of a volunteer army of 12,000 people — the kind of support many statewide candidates couldn’t even match.
It was abundantly clear during a series of weekend campaign stops that Ossoff is wildly popular among his supporters and local Democrats. Dozens of people surrounded him Saturday when he appeared at an afternoon celebration — a crowd larger than even the one that surrounded Lewis, the civil-rights leader who was campaigning with Ossoff that day.
One young girl kept yelling his name over and over, while Ossoff signed at least four autographs for children over the course of the day. He took what seemed like a hundred pictures with supporters.
"I think Georgia Democrats understand there is only so liberal that you can get and still win in Georgia," said Christina Sheils, a 33-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps who attended an Ossoff event Saturday.
She added that Ossoff had "galvanized" local progressive groups and liberal activists who had participated in the Women’s March in January.
His ability to thrive off that enthusiasm raises a different question for the party when it comes to primaries.
The worry among some Democrats is even if a centrist-oriented candidate emerges from the primary, a tough primary battle might alienate some members of the liberal base — and reduce the money and volunteer hours they might otherwise give.
"The idea he’s done well and raised money and had a moderate pursuit as far as policy goes, I think it could be replicated in other places," said one Democratic strategist. "But I think primaries could make it more challenging."
Ossoff is by no means a perfect candidate: He’s young and looks younger, and Republicans have exploited his background as a former Congressional aide. He also doesn’t actually live in the district. (He said he lives a few minutes away to make it easier for his fiancé to attend medical school.)
Both parties consider his race against Republican Karen Handel a true toss-up.
Other Democrats, especially those from the party’s liberal wing, also dispute that a centrist approach is the right one after an election in which voters rejected the party’s moderate nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Especially in House battlegrounds where Trump performed well, the party should consider running more liberal candidates, they say.
"The Ossoff model is a traditional Democratic model: a moderate candidate in a moderate district, and he avoids taking liberal positions," said Ben Tulchin, who worked as the pollster for Sanders’ presidential campaign. "Those of us who worked on Bernie’s campaign feel there is a different model and a different path."