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Georgia special election: the debate over Jon Ossoff's "outsider” status reveals the core of the race

Democratic Candidate For Georgia's 6th District Leading In Polls On Election Day Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

ROSWELL, Georgia — Democrat Jon Ossoff has spent much of his campaign for the House fending off the charge that he is an “outsider” and “carpetbagger” who will undermine the traditional culture of Georgia. “He’s just not one of us,” says one of the ads by Republican Karen Handel, Georgia’s former secretary of state, ahead of Tuesday’s nationally watched special election.

Ossoff was born and raised in Georgia, but, in a way, Handel is onto something. Ossoff does represent something new and different in this white, conservative, largely suburban slice of the South.

That’s one reason he might win the special election to replace a reliable conservative in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District. It’s also the reason he might lose.

Though born in the district, Ossoff, 30, is the son of an Australian immigrant mother and a Jewish father of Russian-Lithuanian descent. He would be only the second Jew elected to represent Georgia in Congress, and the first in decades. Many of the volunteers staffing his campaign are millennials, immigrants, out-of-state transplants, African Americans, Hispanics, or Asians. Ossoff began his career in politics working for Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights icon.

Ossoff’s improbably successful campaign reflects the changing demographics of his district, and of the state (and country) more generally. Handel is correct to see him as a break from the old order. The election Tuesday will show whether that was his fatal flaw as a candidate — or the fuel for an unlikely victory.

What a debate about Ossoff’s residence is really about

Understanding the nature of Ossoff’s campaign isn’t just valuable for gauging what’s happening in the special election. It’s also crucial for gauging what the race says about the current debate raging in the Democratic Party.

There was a school of thought among liberals who argued that demographics were destiny in 2016 — that Hillary Clinton could win by revving up turnout among the young, black, and Hispanic voters who powered Barack Obama’s 2008 victory.

They were wrong. Trump beat Clinton in key industrial swing states, in part because he flipped a large chunk of non-college-educated white voters who had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Superficially, Ossoff is going out of his way to avoid alienating such voters, stressing his economic moderation, distancing himself from Nancy Pelosi, and rejecting core lefty policy demands like single-payer health care out of hand.

But his path to Congress remains essentially similar to Clinton’s presumed path to the presidency — relying on the same “new majority” voters that put Obama in the White House. (Clinton only lost the Georgia Sixth by 1 point, which is one reason it has become such a nationally-watched race.) One strategy may wind up working better than the other, but the actual demographic composition of who turns out for Democrats is basically the same for Ossoff as it was for Clinton.

And even as he runs as an economic moderate, Ossoff has defended diversity and multiculturalism, vowing to strongly defend voting rights for African Americans; running endorsements from Khizr Khan, the Muslim Gold Star father who took on Trump; and declaring the he will “never shy away from standing with the LGBT community, publicly, forcefully, with everything I’ve got.”

In this election, one of the most common recurring debates is over whether Ossoff can claim to live in the district he’s running to represent. Handel continues to make the point that Ossoff resides just outside the Sixth’s boundaries. Then, on cue, Ossoff retorts that he did grow up within its boundaries but has temporarily moved outside of it to support his fiancée as she completes medical school.

The back and forth has gotten a lot of play in the press, but it obscures a larger point. Handel’s attack is useful because it allows her to insinuate something else entirely — that Ossoff doesn’t belong to the traditional community of the area in a much more fundamental sense. In a race where Ossoff has appealed to the area’s country club Republicans who, despite not liking Trump, helped Price win the district by close to 30 points, this could prove a winning strategy.

Ossoff needs white voters to have a shot

The Sixth Congressional District is still 72 percent white, and white voters are much more conservative. On their own, there simply still aren’t nearly enough “new majority” voters to overtake the Republican Party in the district, which has gone red every year since 1979.

“Much of the demographic change in the state has been concentrated closer to Atlanta,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, in an interview. “Ossoff still has to do really well with a big component of the white population to win.”

It is clear that Ossoff has been sensitive to this underlying demographic reality. He has campaigned most heavily on ending government waste and creating new jobs in the district. He’s touted his time on Capitol Hill as “national security staffer,” although that decision later earned him some criticism as an exaggeration. He has emphasized his independence and fiscal prudence.

“There are folks who want economic opportunity to increase, who want common-sense leadership that's focused less on the kind of gridlock and palace intrigue that people are tired of in Washington,” Ossoff told WBUR. “So I'm going to stay focused on local economic development as the highest priority for the campaign."

The flip-side of “not being one of us”

Even though he’s rhetorically targeting Republican moderates, Ossoff will need new majority voters to carry him over the top. His supporters say they see reflected in him the area’s increasing embrace of multiculturalism and diversity, which they also see as reflecting the increasing diversity of America.

“This whole campaign is about building bridges and not walls,” said Indian immigrant Gopi Nath, 48, at an Ossoff GOTV rally on Sunday. Nath’s wife, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, grabbed his arm and pulled him away so they could take a selfie with Ossoff as he shook hands a few feet away. “It’s about making America whole, not ‘Making America Great Again.’”

At a GOTV rally, I met an interracial couple from Texas, a medical student who is Palestinian but grew up in Toronto, an Italian who married a native Atlantan, several New York City transplants, two black teenagers who had recently moved from Mississippi, and a Hispanic father.

“You see the diversity at the Ossoff offices and while knocking doors and among the volunteers,” said Reem Dawoud, the medical student. “And I’m very proud to help Jon in implicitly acknowledging the diversity that’s in this community.”

A few decades after launching a campaign to become “the world’s next great city,” metro Atlanta has seen a population boom driven largely by international immigration — and the spillover effects have changed the demographics even into this suburban area to its north.

Dekalb County, the state’s most diverse county, has seen its immigrant population explode by a more than 150 percent. At least half of Cobb County’s stunning 15 percent population growth is due to international migration, experts told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (The county’s Asian population has ballooned by around 300 percent since 2000 alone.) The percentage of Fulton County that’s white fell by almost 5 percent from 2000 to 2010. The district now has the second largest population of master’s degree holders in any in the country.

“The reality of the Sixth District is diversity — in race, cultures, nationalities, languages,” said Evan Lee, 66, who grew up just outside of it and attended an Ossoff rally on Saturday. “It used to be white-and-black here. And now we have two-thirds of the world represented in the Sixth.”

Early voting results from the New York Times’s Nate Cohn suggests that voting day will see a younger, more diverse electorate with newer voters:

On Saturday, Leila Helogu and Daniella Weeds, both 18, were attending a political rally for the first time. They liked Ossoff’s commitment to Planned Parenthood, his willingness to oppose Donald Trump, and the fact that he uses Snapchat to reach out to young voters.

“You can just see in [Ossoff’s] ads and his support base that he has multi-racial women. Handel is always just with old white people,” Helogu said. “Look, right there, see that ‘Latinos for Ossoff shirt?’ You will not see ‘Latinos for Handel’ around here.”

When Helogu’s family first moved to the area a few years ago, they were the only minorities in their neighborhood. But now there are dozens, she said, and more keep coming.

“There’s this new Persian family, and a new Hispanic family, and a black family where my brother often plays down the street,” she said. “And there’s been Ossoff signs all over my neighborhood, which surprised me. I saw those and I said, ‘Wow, good job, Georgia! I did not expect this from you.’”

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