Story highlights

Jon Ossoff, 30, hopes to flip a traditionally Republican seat in Georgia

Ossoff has tried to project a moderate voice and rarely talks about Trump

CNN —  

Democrats, desperate to hand President Donald Trump a setback, have their hopes riding on a 30-year-old political neophyte.

Jon Ossoff has never held office before.

But he defied expectations when he catapulted from obscurity to nearly winning the House race in April, while running in a longtime conservative stronghold in Georgia.

The Atlanta native got 48.1% of the vote – just shy of the 50% he needed to avoid a runoff in a special election two months ago. He had called that outcome as a “victory for the ages.”

Now, he’s up against Republican candidate Karen Handel in the most expensive House race ever. Attention has fallen on the race as a bellwether for what’s to come in the 2018 midterm elections.

But if the election is a barometer of how voters feel about Trump, Ossoff hasn’t really been showing it.

He has been careful not to alienate persuadable voters in a heavily Republican district. In fact, he rarely discusses Trump – even when Trump tweets about him.

Ossoff has tried to cast himself as a pragmatist in a traditionally Republican district. He sold himself as a moderate who would happily work across the aisle, who fretted about deficit spending and who wasn’t even sure he’d vote for Nancy Pelosi for House speaker.

This caused some to question whether Ossoff is a progressive. When Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked by The Wall Street Journal whether Ossoff is a progressive, the senator replied, “I don’t know.”

Sanders later clarified that he supports Ossoff in the race, but added that the Democratic Party needs a “strong, progressive agenda.”

From obscurity to national spotlight

Born in Atlanta, Ossoff grew up in the Northlake area. He attended Georgetown University where he got a bachelor’s degree in foreign service and then worked as an aide to Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson.

He got his master’s degree in international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In 2013, Ossoff began working with former BBC journalist, Ron McCullagh. He used money from an inheritance to buy a stake in McCullagh’s investigative film company and renamed it Insight TWI, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The company has produced documentaries into mass killings and sexual slavery by ISIS, and a corruption investigation on judges in Ghana.

Earlier this year, after Tom Price vacated his seat in Georgia’s sixth district to join the Trump administration as the new Health and Human Services Secretary, Ossoff decided to join the race.

“During five years as a congressional aide, I learned how to get things done in Washington. On Capitol Hill and as a journalist, I’ve learned how to expose and fight the abuse of power,” he wrote on his campaign website.

Ossoff gained key endorsements from Johnson and civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis.

The little-known, former congressional staffer quickly emerged as an online fundraising superstar, mainly because he represented progressives’ best chance of swiping a House seat from Republicans early in the Trump presidency.

Progressives have pumped $23 million into Ossoff’s campaign hoping to flip the reliably red sixth district – a seat that once was held by Newt Gingrich.

Handel: ‘Someone who doesn’t even live in the district’

Ossoff’s inexperience has opened him to criticisms.

He doesn’t live in the district he seeks to represent – a fact that opened him up to jabs from Handel who called him “someone who doesn’t even live in the district, someone who has a really thin resume and very lacking in experience.”

A member of Congress doesn’t have to live in the district they represent. Under federal law, you only have to live in the same state.

When asked why he doesn’t live in the district, Ossoff told CNN in April, that he was living with his longtime girlfriend near Emory University, where she is a medical student.

Jon Ossoff doesn’t live in his district. That might be a problem.

“As soon as she concludes her medical training I will be back into the district where I grew up, but I want to support her and her career and do right by her.”

Ossoff looked uncomfortable while answering the question as “New Day” co-host Alisyn Camerota pushed him on it.

“I am a mile and a half down the street to support Alicia while she finishes medical school. It’s something I’ve been very transparent about. I am proud to be supporting her career. As soon as she finishes her medical training, I will be ten minutes back up to road where I grew up.”

Earlier in his campaign, he touted his high-level national security clearance – though he has backed off his emphasis on the clearance after reports that he only held it for five months before leaving Johnson’s staff. It’s led to attacks from Republicans who accused Ossoff of inflating his resume.

Ossoff described himself as a small business owner and listed his priorities as the economy, vowing to reduce the tax burden on small businesses and health care, saying he would push for quality, affordable health care, although his health care priorities posted on his site didn’t mention Obamacare.