Opinion

Opinion: Jon Ossoff and the New Breed of Yellow Dog Democrats

How politics in a onetime Southern GOP stronghold have changed

By the kind of campaign he ran in Georgia’s 6th District, Jon Ossoff is emblematic of a New Southern Democrat, Murphy writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — It’s Election Day in Georgia, so this column goes to print before we know the outcome of the 6th District special election to replace Dr. Tom Price in Congress. But whether Karen Handel, the Republican, pulls off a win or Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, manages an upset, it is well-understood here that the politics of this once solidly Republican district have changed, almost overnight.

The fact that Ossoff became so competitive, so quickly in this race was almost entirely because of Donald Trump. Trump was certainly the reason Democratic activists across the country pumped $20 million into a district where the biggest tourist attraction is a giant red chicken in front of a vintage KFC. Trump was also the reason countless Ossoff volunteers told me they were working for him “because at least it is something I could do” after Trump won in November.

Even local GOP operatives readily admitted that their problem was the president. And for the first time in nearly 40 years, Democrats in the district had a solution in the form of Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer who may well be the prototype for a new kind of Southern Democrat to run against sitting Republicans in the New South.

While rural Democrats such as Sen. Sam Nunn and Gov. and Sen. Zell Miller once dominated Georgia and the South, Democrats were wiped out across the country in 2002 and beyond, including one of my old bosses, former Sen. Max Cleland.

I had also worked for Nunn before Cleland, and I watched over the course of my time in the Senate as Southern Democrats became fewer and fewer. People at home used to tell me they were “Sam Nunn Democrats,” meaning they were socially moderate, fiscally conservative and pro-defense. By the time Cleland lost his race in 2002, people at home wanted to know how I had become so wayward that I ended up “a liberal.”

Changing the brand

My politics hadn’t changed, but the Democratic brand had. Instead of meaning a person was pro-business, pro-defense and socially moderate, the term “Southern Democrat” began to mean simply liberal, until it eventually meant something worse — nothing at all. I was so turned off by politics by the 2002 race, I decided to go into journalism, where at least no one would call me names. Oh, well.

As my first act of journalism, I wrote an entire book proposal titled, “Are the Yellow Dogs Done Barking?” Growing up in Georgia, people were known as “Yellow Dog Democrats,” meaning they would vote for anyone, even a yellow dog, if he had a “D” by his name on the ballot. My book would be an attempt to find out if Democrats in the South were dead as a governing party forever.

I never took my book proposal to agents in 2003 because the answer seemed so obvious at the time. Republicans had come to so dominate the South, it seemed impossible to envision a day when a Democrat could run even a competitive race statewide, or in the majority-white congressional districts that Republican legislatures had specifically drawn to stay in Republican hands for a generation.

A different breed

But Ossoff’s campaign marks the first I’ve seen of what I’d call a New Southern Democrat, a different breed of Southern Democrat. But instead of a bird-hunting, Labrador version of the old Yellow Dog Democrat, Ossoff is more Labradoodle, a friendly companion well-suited to living in a (Southern) suburban condo. He’s a Yellow Dog Democrat for millennial voters, the multicultural, entrepreneurial voters who are pouring into Southern suburbs for jobs and schools and voting in a way their senior citizen neighbors never did.

Instead of running as a liberal or a conservative, Ossoff ran a different kind of campaign, tailored to the sort of majority-white, rapidly changing Southern suburban district Democrats will have to win in the future.

Instead of “Stronger Together,” the two words I heard Ossoff say most often on the campaign trail were “humble and kind.” Other than the fact that “Humble and Kind” is literally the title of a country song, it is also the message that resonated with Republican moms I met in the district, who were so bothered by President Trump’s tweeting, they compared their strategies of how they (successfully) kept their children from doing the same.

Ossoff was also very business-focused. His ads talked about how to make the Atlanta suburbs a tech corridor, and went on, at great length, about Washington wasting everybody’s money. Ironically, Ossoff didn’t hammer the president, nor did he talk about Russia. If the Hillary Clinton campaign could say the same, maybe they would all be in the White House instead of on LinkedIn.

Interestingly, Ossoff is just one of a slate of young, new Southern Democrats trying to find a way back into power. Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, wrote an op-ed last week for The Daily Beast about being a “pragmatic progressive.” That answer to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” respects government, works with Republicans, and, according to Tomlinson, “accepts science, technology and fact.” Snaps on that, House GOP.

One of the many criticisms of Ossoff that I’ve heard from Republican leaders in the 6th District is that he is “trying to trick people into thinking he’s a Republican.” They don’t believe what Ossoff is selling — that a person could really be pro-business and socially liberal at the same time. But that is precisely the appeal for the 10 percent of Republicans who voted for Ossoff in the April primary and put him within striking distance to win the seat Tuesday night.

To answer my question 15 years later, no, the Yellow Dogs aren’t done barking.

They don’t look like the old Southern Democrats, but the South doesn’t look the way it used to either. Whichever party figures that out will win in 2018 and beyond. 

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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