Jon Ossoff avoids runoff to win Democratic nomination for Senate in Georgia

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Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff addresses the crowd during his election night party on June 20, 2017, in Atlanta. - Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

ATLANTA — Jon Ossoff captured the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, emerging from a crowded field that included two well-financed rivals to win an outright victory in the race to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

Ossoff, 33, notched a clear win that eluded him three years ago when he waged a special election campaign for a suburban Atlanta congressional district that earned national attention. He narrowly missed avoiding a runoff in that contest, only to lose to Republican Karen Handel two months later.

In that race, Ossoff was a virtually unknown candidate who stunned the party by raising roughly $30 million. This time, he came into the race as the de facto front-runner, and he wielded his financial advantage and superior name recognition against his two main competitors, Sarah Riggs Amico and Teresa Tomlinson.

He also left little to chance. With surveys showing him hovering near the 50% mark, Ossoff poured $450,000 of his own cash into his campaign to amplify his message and extend his outreach efforts.

In a virtual news conference earlier Wednesday, when his margins were tighter, Ossoff was reluctant to discuss the possibility of a clear win. Georgia candidates must win more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.

“We don’t know what the outcome is. There are hundreds of thousands of votes that remain uncounted,” said Ossoff, who owns an investigative journalism firm. “When we are satisfied that all the votes are counted, we can talk about next steps.”

The victory gives state Democrats the chance to unify behind his campaign against Perdue, a first-term Republican and former Fortune 500 chief executive with close ties to President Donald Trump.

Perdue, 70, will be a formidable foe. His family’s sprawling political network has deep ties to Republican power brokers in Atlanta and Washington, and he’s amassed $9 million in his campaign account. He is so popular among Republicans that he didn’t draw a primary challenge.

As Democrats dueled for the right to challenge him, Perdue has tied them to “socialists” and questioned whether they support the nascent movement sparked by the George Floyd protests for racial justice to cut funding to law enforcement agencies.

Ossoff’s victory was called by The Associated Press as absentee ballots from metro Atlanta, his biggest base of support, steadily boosted his vote total above the 50% mark. Earlier in the day, with Ossoff just short of an outright victory, Tomlinson declared that she had forced the runoff.

Tomlinson, who was in second place in the mid-teens, sent a press release trumpeting a runoff between a “proven leader and a failed repeat candidate who can’t break 50%.” It was a reference to his 2017 defeat in the nationally watched race against Handel.

“Voters in Georgia know we need a strong candidate to take on David Perdue, and even though Jon is universally known, a majority of voters have rejected him again,” she said.

It was an unusually strong rebuke for a candidate who was trounced by Ossoff in every part of the state except the region surrounding her Columbus base. It was also a reminder of how brutal a runoff could have become if Ossoff didn’t win the race outright.

Tomlinson was unsparing in her criticism of the 33-year-old former congressional candidate, questioning his level of experience as she contended she’s the only Democrat in the race who can defeat Perdue. He largely ignored her broadsides, focusing his fire on Perdue and the White House.

Runoffs in Georgia are famously unpredictable. Republican Brian Kemp finished a distant second to Casey Cagle in the 2018 GOP primary for governor, but Kemp — after gaining the endorsement of President Donald Trump and with help from a secretly recorded conversation — routed Cagle nine weeks later in a runoff.

Amico, the party’s 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor, was in third place, close behind Tomlinson. She was critical of Tomlinson’s claim and echoed Ossoff’s call to wait until more ballots were returned before declaring a victory.

“Candidates for elected office awaiting results should be more invested in protecting voters’ rights than advancing their political careers,” Amico said.

Ossoff was the last of the major candidates to enter the race, announcing in September, months after Tomlinson launched her bid. He became the perceived front-runner, thanks to the name recognition he built during his 2017 race for the 6th Congressional District in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

He narrowly lost that race, the most expensive U.S. House contest in history, after raising roughly $30 million during the campaign. But he amassed a lengthy donor list, a network of contacts and hard-earned experience dealing with cutting personal attacks and intense media scrutiny.

In that race, he pushed a mix of liberal policy stances and centrist-sounding messages to try to woo moderate voters in the district. In this contest, he’s embraced a more liberal approach and is more likely to directly confront Perdue and other Republicans.

“I learned never to be intimidated from telling my own story and touting my own accomplishments by the inevitable partisan smears that will come from super PACs in Washington,” Ossoff said in a recent interview. “I’ve been through the fire. I no longer care what they say about me.”

Though he led in polls and fundraising, it seemed likely through much of the campaign that the seven-candidate race would end in an August runoff. But several surveys within the final weeks showed Ossoff in range of a clear victory.

The coronavirus pandemic may have helped his campaign, too. All three candidates were forced to resort to virtual campaigning as restrictions took hold in March, but analysts said it could give candidates with high profiles and deep pockets an edge since old-fashioned retail politicking was largely off-limits.

Armed with the endorsements of U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson and John Lewis — veteran Democrats he considers mentors — Ossoff has embraced left-leaning policies he didn’t emphasize during his 2017 campaign.

Ossoff has talked often about deep racial inequities that shape every facet of American life, and he’s promised to fight for stronger civil rights protections, an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences and a ban on private prisons.

One of his recent TV ads invokes the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old shot dead while running near his Brunswick neighborhood, in his push to overhaul the criminal justice system. He’s called the pandemic a “massive wake-up call” to expand health insurance and bolster public health funding.

And he’s kept his message fixed on Perdue, whom he’s described as a corrupt defender of the status quo.

“I expose corruption for a living,” he said at a forum, “and David Perdue sells access for campaign cash.”

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)