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Jon Ossoff lost the first high-profile race of the Trump era. Can he win the last one?

NBC News logo NBC News 11/30/2020 Alex Seitz-Wald
a person holding a sign in front of a crowd © Provided by NBC News

ATLANTA — Jon Ossoff is ending the Trump era the same way he began it: as a young Democrat unexpectedly at the center of the political universe.

He lost his first run for office in June 2017, but the stakes then were largely symbolic. This time, some say, the fate of the country, and even the world, hangs in the balance on what will be the last election of the Trump era. No pressure.

"Jon ended up running an incredibly expensive and highly publicized race four years ago," said Atlanta City Council member Matt Westmoreland, a Democrat. "And now he's found himself in a race with even higher stakes and more money because control of the Senate is at stake."

In the unsettled early months of Donald Trump's presidency, Ossoff, then 30, captured progressive hearts — and dollars — in a special election to flip Newt Gingrich's old congressional seat, which became the most expensive House race in history and the first real bellwether of the political trends that would come to define the era.

Now, he's running for the Senate in one of two January runoffs in Georgia that will "determine the direction of our country for the next 50 to 100 years," according to his Republican opponent, Sen. David Perdue. If Democrats win both seats, they'll end the Trump era by giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote in the Senate.

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It would also be vindication for Ossoff, whose loss in the House race set off a familiar circular firing squad among Democrats. Some in the party wondered whether they had wasted precious money on the seemingly hopeless cause of winning one House seat in a heavily Republican district.

Republicans, who hope the outcome will be the same this time, haven't lost a Senate election in Georgia since 2000.

"Only a trust fund socialist could spend his early 30s trying to run for office with zero real-life accomplishments," said Jesse Hunt, the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "This all began with Ossoff losing a high-profile race after D.C. Democrats and California liberals flooded the state in support of his candidacy, and that's exactly how this will end."

But Georgia Democrats say a lot has changed between these two bookends of the Trump era: Ossoff is a better candidate, and, as shown in President-elect Joe Biden's win here, Georgia has become a much friendlier state for them.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a scientist who narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent in the "blue wave" of the 2018 midterms, said you can draw a direct line from Ossoff's first race to Stacey Abrams' near-miss run for governor and then to Biden's projected win this month.

"That 2017 special election was the catalyst for what we saw in 2018. And the 2018 election served as an even bigger catalyst for 2020, when the state finally flipped from red to blue," Clark said.

Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with a booming economy attracting especially young people of color. More than 600,000 new voters have been added to the rolls since the 2018 election, and an estimated 23,000 more young people will become eligible to vote just by the Jan. 5 runoff.

"Georgia has become younger and more diverse by the hour," Ossoff said when asked what's different this year. "What we've done to build infrastructure ... much of this work led by Stacey Abrams, has been historic."

A year and a half after Ossoff's loss, Democrat Lucy McBath won the 6th Congressional District with a pro-gun-control platform in the 2018 midterms. Bath, who is Black and lost her son to gun violence,cruised to re-election this month.

Biden won the district by 11 percentage points, 55 percent to 44 percent — a stunning turnaround after Trump narrowly carried it in 2016 and Republican Mitt Romney dominated it, 61 percent to 37 percent, in 2012. Next door, in the 7th Congressional District, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux gave the House its only real red-to-blue flip of 2020 in an otherwise disappointing year.

"The recognition of Georgia as a legitimate battleground state is the thing that's different this time," said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which was founded by Abrams. "Demographics is the fire. Organizing is the accelerant."

a group of people posing for the camera: Image: Jon Ossoff (David Goldman / AP file) © David Goldman Image: Jon Ossoff (David Goldman / AP file)

In the wake of Trump's 2016 victory, several special elections were seen as tests of the new national mood. But the one that really caught fire was Ossoff's in the north Atlanta suburbs.

After the Women's March, a newly invigorated progressive "resistance" movement was looking for something to do. It found a cause in Ossoff's fundraising pitch to "Make Trump Furious," opening their wallets and packing up their Subarus to come help.

Samuel L. Jackson recorded a campaign ad. Trump traveled to Atlanta and hammered Ossoff as a radical left lightweight in tweets. And a local TV station added newscasts to handle the influx of political ads.

Ossoff raised $8.3 million in the first quarter, an unheard-of sum at the time that was the first sign of the "green wave" of Democratic money that would later help candidates like Beto O'Rourke shatter fundraising records.

"He's a very disciplined campaigner. He's an astute fundraiser," said Sarah Riggs-Amico, who ran for lieutenant governor with Abrams and against Ossoff in the 2020 Senate primary.

Still, it was a lot for a former congressional staffer and documentary filmmaker who had never run for office, and he sometimes looked like a deer in the headlights in the face of all the attention as he tried in vain to keep the race focused on local issues.

"He matured a lot as a candidate," Democratic state Rep. Angelika Kausche said. "He was very, very young, and at some points it showed that he didn't have the experience. None of us had the experience at that point."

This year, in his last debate with Perdue, Ossoff went viral for dressing down the senator over opportunistic stock trades during the pandemic that may have violated ethics rules. Perdue has declined to participate in any further debates.

The 2017 race was also the first real evidence that the Georgia suburbs were changing.

The campaign arm of House Democrats used the race to conduct some of its first focus groups of the cycle that helped persuade it to focus on flipping suburban seats from California to Texas to New Jersey in 2018.

Kausche, a naturalized German immigrant, started volunteering on Ossoff's campaign to learn more about American politics, but she ended up running for office herself.

"We couldn't find anyone to run, because the traditional assumption was this area is so red, it's all Republican, there are no Democrats. But the data [from Ossoff's race] told a different story," she said. "So I said, 'Fine, if we can't find anybody, I'll do it.'"

She won in 2018 by 317 votes, flipping the state House seat formerly occupied by Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

"Without having the experience of campaigning for Jon, I probably would not have done it," she said.

Democrats now hope Georgia is on a path similar to that of Virginia, which went from red to purple to blue in a little over a decade. But they know it may take longer than they have before January to get there.

And while Ossoff's first race was for a House seat that wouldn't have changed control of the chamber, this time it's for keeps.

"Georgians recognize the high stakes of these two Senate runoffs, because this incoming administration needs the capacity to govern," Ossoff said.

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