Georgia's Democrats amaze themselves with power of anti-Trump momentum in special election

Campaign behind 30-year-old political newbie energising supporters who are surprised and delighted to learn of each other's existence - and determined to make amends for party's disastrous failure in November

David Usborne
Johns Creek, Georgia
Saturday 15 April 2017 16:17 BST
Georgia voters are fighting back against Trump in special election

If Jon Ossoff pulls it off in Tuesday’s special election to Congress and steals Georgia’s Sixth District from the Republicans, who have held the seat since local boy Jimmy Carter was president, he will have an army of women to thank. (And two boys, Baxter and Emmett, in a little red wagon).

A slightly giddy insurgency has sprung up around Mr Ossoff, a beanpole 30-year-old and CEO of a documentary film-making company based in Harrow, northwest London, who has never before run for office.

It’s an April uprising pushing against the barricades of Republican hegemony in Georgia, if not quite the whole country. For weeks, bands of volunteers have been saturating its dogwood cul-de-sacs and manicured shopping malls urging voters to go Democrat in a special election set for 18 April.

These are the Ossoff women – and, yes, a few men – many of whom have never been involved in politics until now. They’ve found themselves swept up by a tide of shared astonishment: that they are not the only Democrats in their neighbourhoods, as they had always imagined, and that they have a unique chance to rebuke Donald Trump just as he nears the end of his first one hundred days.

Not quite unique. Last week, voters in one Kansas district were also called to the polls because their representative in Congress, Mike Pompeo, had been collared by Mr Trump to serve as CIA director. Here they are voting to replace Tom Price, whose new job is Health Secretary. Before the Sixth District was his it belonged to Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House.

In Kansas, the Republican runner eked out a single-digit win over his Democrat challenger, but only after a last-minute rush by the national party to buoy him. That the Democrat there, James Thompson, also a first-time candidate, came so close in a district that Mr Trump won by 27 percentage points last November is giving Democrats in Georgia new hope that victory for Mr Ossoff is within reach. Mr Trump’s margin in Georgia’s Sixth was a mere 1.5 points.

Two very young canvassers going – being pulled – door to door in support of Jon Ossoff
Two very young canvassers going – being pulled – door to door in support of Jon Ossoff (David Usborne)

“Hopefully we’ll pull it off,” ventured Ruth Hartman, 47, who showed up for a small Ossoff rally – her first ever for any politician – at a busy road junction in Johns Creek, one of the many suburbs in this mostly prosperous district northeast of Atlanta that also includes the cities of Marietta and Alpharetta. But, like others, she concedes that Ossoff’s momentum comes as a bit of a surprise.

“It’s been tough to figure out because if you are a liberal around here it has to be very hush-hush, you have to kind of go under the radar. It’s Bible belt and hard to be different,” she went on. For her too, it has been a political coming out. “Now we are showing up. We are like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were a Democrat. Oh, I didn’t know you would be here!’ So it’s kind of neat.”

Several things have helped Mr Ossoff, including the scattered field of 11 different Republicans among whom three – former state senator Dan Moody, former Georgia Secretary State Karen Handel and Johns Creek Councilman Bob Gray – are splitting most of the Republican support. He has also raised a thumping $8.3m (£6.6m), mostly from Democrat groups outside the state, an unheard-of sum for a special election to Congress and far more than any of his rivals have mustered.

Yet he knows to be cautious. He needs at least 50 per cent of the vote on Tuesday – most polls now have him in the mid-40s – or he’ll be forced into a June run-off against whomever comes first among the Republicans. Running against a sole Republican would be a much tougher deal.

He clearly has the Republicans anxious, though, as evidenced by a blitz of attack ads against him, some faulting him for having Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news outlet, as a customer of his documentary film company company, Insight TWI, and others attempting to shackle him to Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House who is reviled by most conservatives.

Fred Davis, a veteran Republican strategist advising the Moody camp, wondered if the Pelosi ads had backfired by further galvanising women to come out for Ossoff, a candidate he otherwise sees as lacking. “The guy himself just seems really weak to me,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “He looks and sounds like a contestant on American Idol or something.”

He conceded the seat is in jeopardy and losing it would hurt Mr Trump and gin up Democrats. “They tried to make Kansas an example of anti-Trump fervour and they failed barely. Now they’ll try to do the same thing in Georgia. Obviously, Ossoff is going to win and win big, but whether or not he gets to 50 I don’t know. If he does, that will be a big kick in Trump’s butt.”

Which is why, in part, his volunteers are working so hard, as if to make amends for not doing enough to keep Mr Trump from winning the White House in the first place. “Trump’s win woke a lot of people up who should have been awake before, but they weren’t,” said Jen Cox who used Facebook to found a women-only group of activists to help Mr Ossoff get elected. Called “Pave It Blue”, it now has 1,300 members. “They are taking responsibility for that now,” she added.

Among her crew are Luisa Wakeman and Alexandra Hartley-Leonard who together spent part of a recent evening knocking on doors in a woodsy residential corner of Marietta hoping to find like-minded voters. Ms Hartley-Leonard’s offspring, Baxter, five, and Emmett, three, rode along in their little red wagon – dubbed the Ossoffmobile for the night and festooned with the candidate’s campaign signs – scoffing goldfish treats and occasionally alighting to ring doorbells. It wasn’t unreasonable to hope the boys would disarm any unfriendly Republicans.

Of those, as it happened, there was only one, who made it clear from behind a glass pane that she would be voting Republican. But almost as if it were prearranged for the reporter tagging along, one after another, women opened their doors to declare their gleeful support for Mr Ossoff and, just as quickly, to insist – incorrectly – that they were the only Democrat for miles around.

“You’ve got me already,” Marcia Harman fairly gushed before her door was even half open, asserting her love for Mr Ossoff before spotting the boys and suggesting she fetch them chocolates. “Go and talk to somebody else, who I don’t think you will find in my neighbourhood.” That at least two other homeowners close by had just declared themselves Democrats too amazed her. For years, she said, she never felt able to talk politics. “I wouldn’t dare. Someone did tell me... don’t share your views in this neghbourhoood.”

“A lot of us are coming out of the woodwork,” Ms Wakeman agreed. “We have been quiet for a long time because of our political beliefs, because we didn’t want to offend anybody… it was just a conversation that wouldn’t go anywhere as people were staunchly Republican and didn’t want to talk to anybody about anything else.” That, thanks to this campaign, has now all changed.

“There are a lot of people that I know who are a lot more political now than they were even six months ago,” explained Kimberly Doster, another who opened her door to Baxter and Emmett only to insist she also was sold on Ossoff already. “The way the election turned out – everyone thought it was going to be hunky dory, you know, and after the election we were just snowballed by the fact that Trump had slid in there.”

As it happens, Mr Ossoff’s mother, an Australian immigrant, is a management consultant who co-founded an organisation dedicated to getting women into elected office in Georgia. Now it seems that it is women who might help her son make that leap. In an interview at the rally in Johns Creek, Ossoff conceded how critical they have been to getting him even this far, whatever happens on voting day.

“I think women in this community are really leading much of the political organising and engagement and in many ways I am taking my cues from them,” he said. “I am honoured to have the support of so many strong and determined women.”

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