The biggest beneficiary of the progressive "resistance" opposes a push for single-payer health care or hiking income taxes and says he hasn’t “given an ounce of thought” to whether he will support House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker one day.
Democrat Jon Ossoff has raised over $23 million this year from Democratic donors around the country looking to disrupt President Donald Trump’s first year by flipping Georgia’s 6th District in a June 20 special election. But Ossoff has won their support — as well as near-unanimous backing from Democratic voters in the district, according to polling — without speaking like a liberal darling, instead adopting a centrist pitch in the traditionally Republican district. It has sparked accusations of hypocrisy from Republicans and some disappointment from ascendant progressives on Democrats’ left wing.
It’s a notable shift from the early days of Georgia’s special election, when Ossoff was just making a name for himself and regularly invoked Trump to fire up a boiling progressive base. And it has turned Georgia into a prime example of how opposition to a president can paper over deeper ideological divides that split the Democratic Party.
"People would be happier if [Ossoff] was running more progressive, but at this point, when Democrats are in the minority, we have to support the candidates who have a good chance of winning," said Joan Kato, who was the national delegates director for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
Ossoff avoids ideological typecasting in his public appearances and media interviews. "I’m not that interested in labels or litmus tests," Ossoff said. "I’m interested in delivering results that requires bipartisanship and that’s what voters in this district want."
When asked if he identifies as a member of “the resistance,” Ossoff replied: “I identify as a Georgian who wants to do right by Georgia.”
That includes opposing “any increase in income tax rates,” Ossoff said, and refusing to engage on the question of Pelosi’s leadership in the House. It has inspired pushback from some voters — but, they note, they are behind Ossoff for the special election.
"I think the Democrats here are too easy on atrocious Republican positions. I’d like to see Ossoff be a little stronger, but there’s still no contest for who I’m going to support," said Joe, a 69-year-old retiree at a weekend Ossoff event who declined to share his last name.
But it’s Ossoff’s position on health care that has become a source of frustration for some progressives watching the race.
Though single-payer health care has become a new rallying point within the party, Ossoff said in an interview that he doesn’t support "any move toward single-payer when we need to be focused on what’s achievable" on health care policy.
“Sadly, thousands of progressives have given lots of money to someone who opposes a popular program central to progressives,” said Michael Lighty, the policy director of National Nurses United, on Ossoff’s rejection of a single-payer plan, calling it “another example of how corporate Democrats misread voters and align with the health care industry over patient.”
“Candidates like Ossoff make Bernie Sanders’ head explode, in that they may not pass the Sanders litmus test,” said former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers. (Sanders at one point told The Wall Street Journal he wasn’t sure if Ossoff was progressive enough, before endorsing him later.) “These purity tests, which pop up in our primaries, too, are going to prevent us from taking back the House because it would prevent people like Ossoff from winning, even though he best represents his district.”
Ossoff’s centrist positioning, focused on spending cuts and business development, has helped him win support from even some Republican voters in the special election. To try and move them back to GOP candidate Karen Handel, Republicans have tied Ossoff to Pelosi and the national Democratic Party. In a debate last week, Handel portrayed the race as between the “real Karen Handel or the fake Jon Ossoff.” She said Ossoff doesn’t want voters to “know that he is a liberal Democrat and he’s supported by the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party,” adding that he “rarely mentions that he’s a Democrat.”
Rob Simms, a Handel adviser, wrote in an email that the district’s voters “[have] had a fraud perpetuated on them from a liberal candidate who is making himself out to be something he is clearly not.”
Outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund have spent $7 million hammering Ossoff on his “West Coast ties” to Pelosi, with ads saying “there’s a reason Bay Area liberals have contributed more to Jon Ossoff’s campaign than people in Georgia.”
Still, Ossoff has not talked like a California liberal in the campaign. He has shifted, though, from his early days as a candidate. When Ossoff launched his campaign in January, he called Trump an “embarrassment and a threat to prosperity and health, justice and security,” as reported by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
During the primary, Ossoff’s website used the slogan: “Make Trump Furious.” And in a digital ad, Ossoff said Trump was “not only embarrassing us on the world stage, he could start an unnecessary war,” adding that “we can’t let Donald Trump put us at risk.”
But there is no evidence Ossoff has lost support from the Democratic base in his Georgia district since emphasizing a more centrist message. Polls have long showed Ossoff capturing virtually every Democratic vote in the runoff, and donors around the country have continued to pour cash into his campaign.
“So he’s not calling himself a Democrat? I don’t call myself a Democrat,” said Matt Levesque, a 46-year-old dental technology salesman and Ossoff backer who hosted an event for the candidate and describes himself as a “centrist.”
Julie Booth, a 47-year-old technical writer who attended an Ossoff event, said that she doesn’t “blame people around the country for wanting to support us and get involved because they are so upset with what they see in Washington.”
The question is whether there are enough Democrats, independents and even a handful of Republicans thinking that way for Ossoff to win in a district that has long leaned heavily GOP. The Republican message — especially tying Ossoff to Pelosi and the national party — quickly united conservatives in the district after the April primary.
“When he’s getting all of his money from those liberals, we know his allegiances,” said Tom Palmer, an 83-year-old “lifelong Republican” in the 6th District. “It won’t be to us.”
Gabriel Debenedetti contributed to this report.