2021 has already seen a historic moment in Georgia. A runoff election on Jan. 5 resulted in the state’s first Jewish senator, Jon Ossoff. Senator Ossoff was a non-typical candidate; He is a Democrat in a traditionally Republican state, has never held political office, and he lost his only other race. In large part his success was due to the high name I.D. that he generated in his 2017 run for Congress, which included a policy platform that aligned with Georgia’s changing demographics.
Georgia’s 6th district, is the long time district of former Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and a GOP stronghold since 1979. The congressional incumbent, Tom Price, left to join the Trump administration, leaving the seat abandoned. The race became nationalized, seen as a litmus test on how the Trump presidency impacted politics in the suburbs, a region long critical to American political success.
With the additional media scrutiny, Ossoff’s campaign managed to raise $23 million, the type of money congressional leaders, such as the current Speaker, Nancy Pelosi or House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy typically draw in.
But as a candidate, Ossoff was often non-committal, acting more as a mirror, reflecting voters rather than engaging in dialogue with them, as described by The New Republic’s Graham Vyse. His support for reproductive rights was often coded as support for contraception, without much focus on abortion, and his calls for affordable healthcare notably lacked policy. The tactic was deliberate, for the race was less about actual representatives and instead a referendum on Trump.
Ultimately the gamble failed. Despite all the money and media attention, Karen Handel, the Republican candidate, won by 3.5%. In a concession speech Ossoff emphasized how close the race was compared to the Republican candidates who had won the district by upwards of 20% for decades. The future of the district looked bright for Democrats, and just one year later Handel lost the election to local Democrat Lucy McBath.
By September 2019, the Jon Ossoff of the 2017 congressional run was gone, replaced by a more liberal, and detailed, version of himself. Sensing an opportunity to unseat incumbent David Perdue, Ossoff launched a senate run that was about who he was, not his opponent.
Ossoff revised his position on abortion, stating he would only vote for pro-Roe v. Wade judges, as well as healthcare, planning to strengthen the Affordable Care Act that David Perdue had voted against for years.
On immmigration he took stances significantly to the left of what he was previously comfortable with, calling for reforms to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In a likely attempt to appeal to the moderate vote, Ossoff’s campaign embraced widely popular initiatives, such as student debt forgiveness and firearm regulations, that threaded the needle of going further left than the average Democrat while also being able to keep the middle class suburbanites, with whom he had barely lost with in his 2017 run.
The biggest issue of the campaign, though, was the coronavirus pandemic. The beginning of the pandemic saw Senator Perdue trade stocks in companies that dealt in personal protective gear following senate briefings about the virus, before the public was fully aware of the danger. Additionally, Perdue had been hesitant to support the direct payments early in the pandemic, something Ossoff highlighted during a debate.
In the lead up to the Nov. 3 election, polls showed Ossoff narrowly behind, with the 538 forecast model giving him a 43 out of 100 chance. As Georgia’s results trickled in, it became clear that Ossoff was going to lose by a razor thin margin.
What Ossoff was now hoping for was that Perdue’s tally would tick below 50%, the margin a candidate must reach to be elected and avoid a runoff between the top two vote-getters.
A few days after the election, as the final tranches of ballots were counted, Perdue slipped below 50%, resting at 49.7%, only 90 thousand votes ahead of Ossoff.
With the runoff election set for January 5, the race became the largest event in politics, Ossoff and the other Democrat running, Reverend Raphael Warnock, had a chance to give the senate majority to the Democrats. The races attracted national attention once again and money flowed in. By the end of the election cycle Jon Ossoff would raise the most money in senate history, with over $156,000,000.
The runoff election became a microcosm of the debate going on across the country: Should President-elect Joe Biden have a unified Congress for his first two years in office? Does the country need more economic stimuli?
The campaigns had been going on for over a year, there was little else to say other than tout the potential ability of a unified Democratic Washington, and the potential for $2000 stimulus checks rather than just $600 that had been passed a few weeks before.
On January 5 the results came fast. When polls started reporting by 7 p.m., it grew increasingly obvious that Ossoff and Warnock had both won. A historic moment for Georgia, Ossoff became the first Jew and Warnock the first African American elected to the Senate from the state, and Ossoff became the youngest senator elected since Joe Biden at 30 years old in 1972.
Both Senators are currently acclimating to their new home in Washington, with only President Biden’s cabinet picks and a singular budget bill coming up for a vote so far. But Ossoff, who is only 34, has six years to vote on and build support for his policies, if not more.