LSE alumnus campaigns in historic U.S. Senate race

Jon Ossoff at a campaign rally in November 2020, by John Ramspott via Wikimedia Commons.

In an election which will determine the political success of incoming United States president Joe Biden and the legislative agenda of a global superpower, U.S. Senate candidate and LSE alumnus Jon Ossoff takes centre stage as he campaigns on a Democratic ticket in the southern U.S. state of Georgia to advance a progressive vision for the state and the country. By the 5th of January 2021, Georgians will choose two candidates in a runoff race which will decide both the party majority of the U.S. Senate as well as President-elect Biden’s ability to legislate pandemic measures, provide economic relief, and staff various federal positions. The outcome of Ossoff’s campaign is of critical consequence to the United States and the global community.  

Ossoff as a masters student at LSE in 2012, appreciating the rare clear day in London.

LSE appears to comprise an important chapter of Ossoff’s career, as he frequently mentions his education at the School when introducing himself at fundraisers, rallies, debates, and his campaign website. Ossoff studied at LSE from 2012 to 2013, where he read for an MSc in International Political Economy and focused his research (along with much of his Twitter commentary) on China’s growing global influence. During his time at LSE, Ossoff also studied Mandarin, attended several of LSE’s public lectures, and wrote book reviews as an LSE student blogger. After graduating, Ossoff remained in London to work for an investigative journalism firm Insight TWI, where he produced documentaries focused on terrorism and violence around the world, some of which were produced with financial backing from Al Jazeera (which has since generated a degree of controversy). He later assumed the role of CEO and managing director of the company. 

Ossoff’s time at LSE also hints at the development of a prescient worldview which later motivated his formal entry into U.S. politics. In his review of Kishore Mahbubani’s The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World, Ossoff portended that “Mahbubani’s confident predictions of enduring peace and prosperity – ‘wars among major powers have become a sunset industry’  – may downplay risks of resurgent nationalism, populism, or resource scarcity.” Indeed, it was this very rise of nationalism and right-wing populism in the United States and around the world which Donald Trump successfully leveraged during his 2016 bid for the U.S. presidency. Ossoff later cited this development in an interview with Variety Magazine as his inspiration for returning to his home state of Georgia and running for office as a Democrat. 

Ossoff initially made headlines with his first campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives seat in Georgia’s 6th district, which includes his hometown in the suburbs of Atlanta, when he raised nearly $30 million – a figure which Politico later declared distinguished his run as the most expensive U.S. House race in history. While Ossoff lost the special race to his Republican opponent Karen Handel, the race rocketed Ossoff to national prominence and secured his place in the U.S. political theatre. During this race, A CNN report on Ossoff’s political participation noted he had voted in every presidential election for which he was eligible except in 2012, which his campaign later explained was due to his studies at LSE. 

The current senate race marks Ossoff’s re-entry into national politics, where he is locked in a tight race with Republican incumbent David Perdue. He runs in conjunction with his fellow Democratic candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock, who is competing against Kelly Loeffler, a Republican interim appointee who assumed the seat last January following the resignation of Senator Johnny Isakson at the end of 2019. Both sets of candidates advanced to the special runoff race after none of them managed to garner a sufficient number of votes during the primary race in November. The failure of the Democratic Party across the country to realise sufficient down-ballot votes to secure victories for Democratic candidates for the U.S. House and Senate heightens the national importance of the Georgia special senate runoff race. As Democrats currently hold a narrow majority in the House of Representatives and 48 seats in the Senate to the Republican’s 50, the two senators elected in Georgia will determine which party holds the majority—and thus could prevent or ensure President-elect Joe Biden’s lame duck status.

The race is notable for its controversies, including Ossoff’s accusations that Perdue received special congressional intelligence on the emerging COVID-19 virus last spring and subsequently engaged in insider trading on stocks for medical device producers while publicly downplaying the severity of the virus. Perdue’s campaign ads, in turn, alleged that Ossoff created “films for terrorists” during his time at Insight TWI. The Perdue campaign also received national condemnation in July for its use of an anti-Semitic trope in Facebook ads against Ossoff, who is of Jewish descent, which featured a picture of Ossoff with a digitally enlarged nose. The Ossoff campaign pilloried the the ad for using the “the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history.” The Perdue campaign removed the ads and later stated that Perdue had no personal involvement in their design, placing the blame on an outside marketing firm hired by the campaign.  

That the Georgia senate race could hold such monumental consequences is a radical departure from precedence and unforeseen by all but a cadre of African-American activists. The dedicated work of grassroots leaders to register younger and non-white members of the Peach State’s rapidly changing demographic population, including Democratic rising star Stacey Abrams, is transforming Georgia from a Red Republican stronghold since the 1960s to a politically purple swing state today. Most recent evidence of this change is the dramatic upset in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia, during which President-elect Biden carried the state by nearly 12,000 votes – making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992

Ossoff’s commitment to substantive actions towards the anti-Blackness endemic in Georgia, microcosmic of the greater United States, may engender support amongst Georgians, over a third of whom are African American. Indeed, Ossoff’s stance on addressing systemic racism likely proved pivotal in motivating a large number of Black Georgians to throw their support behind his campaign, as Ossoff himself acknowledged in an interview with The Hill. Police brutality remains rife in Georgia, which a 2015 investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found disproportionately impacted Black Georgians. The state’s legacy of slavery and racial segregation provides a degree of context for the violence which Black Georgians face, a prominent example of which is the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Abery last February. This characteristic of Georgian society is reinforced by a long history of Black voter intimidation and disenfranchisement in the state. Victory for Ossoff and for Reverend Warnock, who is Black, is thus likely contingent on the success of organisations such as Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project—both founded by Stacey Abrams—to register Black Georgians to vote. 

Along with the potential to support landmark anti-racism legislation, Ossoff’s campaign lays out a progressive, populist vision which includes the provision of universal healthcare and free higher education along with the legalisation of recreational marijuana. The campaign is also centred on massive reform of the criminal justice system, particularly including Ossoff’s promise to lead the “decriminalisation of poverty,” along with an ardent defense of access to abortion services. 

Ossoff’s experience with the NHS during his time at LSE may influence his stance on greatly expanding public healthcare provision in the US.

The message may appeal to Georgians of all backgrounds, as 1 in 13 Georgian adults are under criminal justice supervision, the highest rate in the nation, while 1 in 70 Georgian adults are incarcerated, the fourth highest rate in the nation. Georgia also ranks third highest in the nation for percentage of the population without health insurance according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a situation exacerbated by Georgia’s ignominious status as a state with a leading number of rural hospital closures

Ossoff’s election to the senate, furthermore, may also provide President-elect Biden with the majority needed to deliver his plans for substantially increased economic relief spending and face mask mandates. Mr. Biden’s agenda could prove critical to Georgia’s pandemic combat efforts, as the state is currently tracking over 500,000 active COVID-19 infections. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the White House Coronavirus Task Force indicates that 79% of Georgia’s counties are experiencing moderate to high rates of virus transmission; AJC also records that the positive results numbers are likely an undercount due to insufficient testing. The Centers for Disease Control, which is located in Georgia, currently recommends that “travellers should avoid all travel to Georgia” and continues to classify Georgia as “Level 4: Very High” for COVID-19 infection rates.” 

Ossoff Campaign sign in the coastal city of Savannah, in Chatham County which President-elect Joe Biden won.

Whether Ossoff will win remains uncertain. The senate campaigns in Georgia are now breaking all-time spending records, with ad spending in Georgia currently amounting to $329 million and potentially growing to $500 million by the end of the race, according to Fox Business. While Republicans are currently outspending Democrats by 400%, Ossoff is maintaining a razor thin lead over Perdue, with Fivethirtyeight currently indicating Ossoff leading 48.6% to Perdue’s 48.2%. If the Ossoff campaign can maintain its momentum through January 5th, LSE may add yet another name to its list of prominent alumni in office and claim formative influence on a groundbreaking new chapter of United States history. 


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