Who’s Jon Ossoff and why are Republicans freaked out?

     In this Feb. 10, 2017, photo, Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th congressional district Jon Ossoff poses for a portrait in Atlanta. Former Rep. Tom Price is President Donald Trump's new health secretary, and that means there's a high-profile special election coming that will give Republicans and Democrats a test run ahead of the 2018 midterms. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    In this Feb. 10, 2017, photo, Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th congressional district Jon Ossoff poses for a portrait in Atlanta. Former Rep. Tom Price is President Donald Trump's new health secretary, and that means there's a high-profile special election coming that will give Republicans and Democrats a test run ahead of the 2018 midterms. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    Wouldn’t it be a kick if the Georgia congressional seat vacated by Health Secretary Tom Price, a suburban Atlanta seat previously held by Newt Gingrich, a seat that has gone Republican ever since the ’70s, was suddenly won by a Democrat?

    This might actually happen. As Georgia Republican consultant Todd Rehm remarked the other day, “[Our] anxiety level is increasing, and it’s creeping higher every day. This race could be a perfect storm of higher-than-average Democratic turnout and below-average Republican turnout.”

    Yep, there’s a race right now in Georgia, and, as Trump would say, it’s a real beaut.

    Two weeks from today, a special election will be held to fill Tom Price’s shoes — and the top candidate in the polls is a 30-year-old Democrat who has racked up $4 million in donations (unprecedented for a special election) from Trump haters nationwide. Jon Ossoff, an ex-congressional staffer and electoral rookie, has thus been dubbed “the luckiest young man in American politics,” the potential beneficiary of the potential perfect storm.

    Frankly, we needed an election somewhere in Trumplandia, just to help us gauge the grassroots mood. Georgia’s sixth congressional district will do fine. Are Democrats so furious about Trump that they’re willing to vote en masse — or are they more inclined to stay in character and sit on their butts, skipping every election until the next presidential contest? And what about independents? Are they OK with Trump, or will they protest by voting Democratic? Are Republicans dispirited enough to stay home, or will they turn out, if only for party loyalty?

    The special election in Georgia should give us some clues. Ossoff is the canary in the coal mine.

    I actually question whether he can win the seat. Under Georgia rules, it’s actually a two-step election. Every candidate, in both parties, appears on the same April 18 ballot (nicknamed “the jungle primary”). If no candidate clears 50 percent, the top two finishers face off in a June finale. Ossoff has soared to first place in the jungle primary polls — with 40 percent; his closest rival, 20 percent — because Democrats have rallied around him, while Republicans are split among nearly a dozen candidates. So even if Ossoff finishes first in round one, he’s not likely to clear 50 percent, and when the Republicans rally around their top-finishing candidate, they’re likely to beat Ossoff one on one in June.

    But the mere fact that a newbie Democrat is competitive at all, in a district that Tom Price won by 20 points last November, has sparked near panic among Republicans. Jack Kingston, a GOP activist, reportedly says “the fear is definitely out there” that Ossoff will surf to 50 percent on April 18, riding a wave of an energized Democratic turnout. Early voting is already underway, and while those stats are an imperfect predictor, Democrats reportedly have a huge early edge; according to Kingston, the totals — from his Republican perspective — are “chilling.”

    Ossoff is scoring with TV ads like this: “When President Trump embarrasses our country or acts recklessly, I’ll hold him accountable.” He put himself on the radar, garnering his $4 million in small online donations, with a national fund-raising email entitled “Make Trump Furious.” He has a huge army of door-to-door volunteers whose T-shirts read “Vote Your Ossoff.” Local Democrats like his outsider creds (documentary filmmaker), insider training (ex-aide to several congressmen), and wonky smarts (master’s degree, London School of Economics). And he stumps the district not as an anti-Trumper, but as a low-key guy who wants to work across the aisle.

    Steve Bannon has even texted a reporter to say, “Ossoff running smart campaign” — smart enough to draw the 11th-hour ire of Republicans. The mere fact that the GOP now feels compelled to fight hard for this Republican seat is proof that Democrats might actually have a pulse. The last thing the White House wants is an Ossoff win (or near-win) that can be spun in the free and independent press as a thumbs-down referendum on Trump.

    And so, what we’ve seen in recent weeks are Republican ads — financed by Paul Ryan’s congressional campaign arm — that mock Ossoff’s youth (they found a goofy image of Ossoff in college, dressed as Han Solo), paint him as a “rubber stamp” for Nancy Pelosi (a reliable bogeyperson), and whack him for inflating his Washington resume (Ossoff said he had “five years as a national security staffer” on Capitol Hill, while in truth it was closer to three.)

    Maybe that stuff will work. This district hasn’t elected a Democratic congressman since the heyday of disco and Astroturf. But check this out: In the presidential tally last November, Trump won the district by only one percentage point; Cobb County, the heart of the district, voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton. The fact that a suburban Deep South enclave resisted Trump’s BS is proof that Ossoff has a shot. As a Republican operative in Washington reportedly said the other day, “We know that Ossoff is real.”

    On the stump, Ossoff is framing the stakes: “This is the first competitive race in the country since the presidential election, it’s the first chance to make a statement about what we stand for, and the eyes of the country are on us.” True that. If Steve Bannon is watching, so should we.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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