Jon Ossoff’s campaign for the special election in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District is attracting national attention because it’s Democrats’ best short-term hope to deal a concrete political defeat to the GOP, and because Ossoff’s studied moderation is such a contrast with the populist fervor that is driving many grassroots progressive activists.
But when thinking about Ossoff’s campaign in this regard, it’s worth comparing his message not just to what national Democrats are doing but specifically to what Democrats have been trying in Georgia. If Ossoff wins, he’ll be the first white Democrat elected to federal office in the state since John Barrow, who was defeated back in the 2014 midterms.
Ossoff is running in a different part of the state in a district that looks different, demographically, from the kinds of places where white Southern Democrats used to try to run and win. But any time you put together a legislative majority, you need to end up winning some marginal districts. And the big takeaway of Ossoff’s approach is that Democrats think they can win in marginal seats with a message that is a lot less conservative than the approach taken by the Blue Dog winners of 2006 and 2008. He says he’s against “wasteful” spending. But he’s also running as pro-choice, as worried about climate change, as a defender of Social Security and Medicare, and as someone who wants the government to give regular people more help paying for health insurance.
This Barrow ad, from 2014, by contrast, gives you a glimpse of what a moderate Democrat looked like in the very recent past. He bragged about voting with John Boehner a majority of the time, and ran against cap and trade and the Affordable Care Act.
Barrow, like Ossoff, positioned himself as opposed to wasteful spending but did so in a much more hard-edged way, bragging about votes for $100 billion worth of spending cuts, not just generic aspirations for less waste.
Barrow also positioned himself as a gun enthusiast, touting his endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
Up until 2011 there was a second white Georgia Democrat in Congress, Jim Marshall, who campaigned for reelection with an immigration ad that looks like something Donald Trump could have cut.
Ossoff’s campaign doesn’t look like Bernie Sanders’s, but it doesn’t look like those Blue Dog Southern Democrats’ campaigns either. What Ossoff’s message mostly reminds me of is Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, during which he would frequently talk about his desire to go “line by line through the federal budget” to cut wasteful spending — in order to reinvest the money in more useful things, of course.
Ossoff’s message is more moderate than what you hear in more liberal parts of the country, but it’s a lot more liberal than what you heard recently in Georgia. Taking an Obama-style campaign to the Atlanta suburbs is a sign of the same leftward shift of the Democratic Party’s message that’s making free college and a $15-an-hour minimum wage a baseline for Democrats in California and the Northeast.
If Ossoff wins, establishment Democrats will take it as vindication of their approach versus the notion that democratic socialism is poised to sweep the country. And it is that, to an extent, but the fact that he has a shot in the Georgia Sixth is more broadly a sign that the whole political spectrum has shifted quite a bit leftward from where it was a decade ago.