Jon Ossoff looks at the ceiling and sighs. He appears tired after nearly six months of his unrelenting congressional campaign for a House seat in Georgia’s Sixth District. He’s less than six hours away from learning the results of a long-shot race turned tangible possibility.
And now the 30-year-old congressional candidate, carrying the hopes of Democrats nationwide and the attention of the president, is figuring out how to answer a question about voters I met at Waffle House, the Southern restaurant chain.
Jose Chevey, 24, is exactly the kind of voter Democrats are trying to activate in off-year elections: young, Hispanic, opposed to Donald Trump. But Chevey was clear he had no plans to head to the polls on Election Day. “They’re trying to appeal to the people, but they’re not going to do it once in office,” he said, explaining why he wasn’t voting for either candidate.
Several people there, including 21-year-old Neek Amie, said they wouldn’t be voting on Tuesday despite generally disliking President Trump and the Republican Party.
Ossoff has run by focusing on business development, “rooting out corruption,” and ending partisan gridlock in Washington — all issues that appeal to affluent suburban moderates who swung to Hillary Clinton for the first time in 2016.
But does appealing to those former Mitt Romney voters mean Ossoff has risked leaving the new core Democratic base behind?
Ossoff recognized the danger of failing to motivate poorer voters as “one of the most important questions in American politics,” he said. “I hope the coalition this campaign has begun to build will start to rebuild some of that faith [in politics].”
Ossoff sat down with Vox and ThinkProgress’s Kira Lerner Tuesday afternoon shortly after a pep rally at his Marietta canvassing headquarters. A transcript of our interview, edited for length and clarity, follows.
When I was driving around last night, I talked to folks at the Waffle House, and when you ask them what they believe, they say they hate Trump, they hate the rich, they don’t like war. You’re their candidate in this race, or at least the closest to it. But they’re turned off by politics and the whole culture of it, and they’re not going to vote.
I’d like to get your thoughts on how you mobilize — in a race where all the talk is about how you need those affluent white voters — those who are still at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Huh. That’s one of the most important questions in American politics, I think. And this campaign has worked extremely hard to mobilize young voters, voters of marginalized communities, voters who are struggling economically.
We’ve been applying new, experimental techniques and tried-and-true techniques. I understand why there is deep cynicism about the potential for politics to deliver anything useful. I hope the coalition this campaign has begun to build will start to rebuild some of that faith — and that if I’m elected, much of my focus will be on outreach to folks who have rejected the idea that politics is worth engaging. They need to assert their power.
This is an R +8 district [meaning in a normal year, Republicans can expect to have an 8-point advantage] ... in play for Democrats in a way it wasn’t before. How do you think this district has demonstrated a shifting axis in American politics — where before it was more Republican-heavy, and now not just with Hillary Clinton coming close but with Democrats looking very possible to win?
Respectfully, I will leave the political insights applicable in other districts from this race to strategists, commentators, and pundits. This is not a particularly partisan community; it’s the kind that judges candidates on their merits as individuals rather than as mere proxies for the major parties. We saw that in the presidential election, and that’s being illustrated by how competitive this race is. Concerns about the integrity and competence of this administration have only become more severe, and that’s only highlighted the need for accountability.
The complete inability of Washington more broadly to deliver anything that improves people’s quality of life on a day-to-day basis has made folks even hungrier for fresh forces. That’s why I’ve offered local accountability, local economic development, on how we can grow metro Atlanta into the world-class commercial capital it has the potential to become — and a place that protects women with preexisting conditions.
On the choices for Democrats, one question has been how much Trump-style intensity they need to adopt themselves — and it seems like your campaign is sending the idea that the response to Trump isn’t a liberal form of Trump.
Every congressional district has a different culture, different economic needs, a different perspective on the national scene.
Coming out of last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing about national strategy, but there’s a fundamental analytical flaw in thinking that questions about national strategy can be superimposed on a race in a single congressional district — and then solutions will be generated that can be applied at the national level. This is a very different district than the one in Kansas, which is very different than the one in Montana. And different candidates will perform better in different contexts.
Being a candidate and observing how the interest in this race has manifested over time — I’m not sure this is going to generate national lessons in the way everyone is looking for. It will tell you about Georgia’s Sixth District.
The Republicans’ [Obamacare] repeal-and-replace plan is polling at around 25 percent, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it doesn't look like the bill was the focal point of your last-minute advertising. I'm curious to what extent that was a conscious decision? Could you have poured more money into attacking [Republican candidate Karen] Handel's position on the [American Health Care Act]?
Well, the AHCA is deeply unpopular. It guts protections for folks with preexisting conditions; it's bad for women; it's bad for older Americans. It throws 20 million off their health insurance. And I've pointed all of that out, and, I think, particularly in the debates, highlighted Secretary Handel's support for a bill that's bad for the people she wants to represent. The fact is she's entirely misinformed about what its application will be — either in denial about what it will do when it comes to preexisting conditions or lying through her teeth about it.
I have also highlighted that Secretary Handel has one of the worst records in politics on women's health issues, and that when she was at the Komen Foundation she imposed her own agenda, cutting off funding for lifesaving screenings at Planned Parenthood. Her support for this bill and her record at Komen are part of the same problem.
The ads I saw you air were mostly about business development, job growth, "waste, fraud, and abuse" — and a lot of the voters I've spoken to here aren't necessarily clear this is a referendum on health care that could have huge implications for 20 million people across the country. And I'm wondering the extent to which you recognize there's been a trade-off by [advancing] these centrist economic issues. ...
The campaign has focused relentlessly on health care and on [Handel’s] record on women's health — one of the worst in American politics. And at a time when it’s clear career politicians in Washington are recklessly disregarding public health, pointing out that she’s the kind of career politician that supports a bill that’s bad for health on Georgians and points out her record at the Komen Foundation has been effective.
When you first announced, the line everyone was talking about was, “Make Trump Furious.”
Do you hope that tonight makes Trump furious? And if you win tonight, is it a sign that voters in Trump’s district are ready to make Trump furious?
I hope that tonight the Sixth District registers its deep dissatisfaction with the direction of things in Washington, its demand for accountability and effective congressional oversight, and its demand that politicians work together to improve daily life here.
But will it “Make Trump Furious?”
Well. I don’t expect a congratulatory tweet.