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Two Live Jews Running for Senate in Georgia

Jon Ossoff and Matt Lieberman—yes, Joe’s son—have outside chances of joining the world’s greatest deliberative body

Armin Rosen
August 13, 2020
left:; right: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Matt Lieberman, left; Jon Ossoff, rightleft:; right: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
left:; right: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Matt Lieberman, left; Jon Ossoff, rightleft:; right: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

It’s possible—actually possible—that a perennial red state in the South could have two young Jewish senators representing it when a new Congress is—we hope!—sworn in this coming January. Thirty-three-year-old wunderkind media executive Jon Ossoff is mounting a credible challenge against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue. Best known for losing a historically expensive House special election in 2017, Ossoff is now polling within 4 points of the incumbent—putting him within striking distance of a Senate seat, especially if the Biden-Harris ticket takes Georgia.

Matt Lieberman faces more of an uphill climb. The former principal of the Greenfield Hebrew Academy in Atlanta, Lieberman is also the son of famously Jewish vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. He remains among the top Democratic contenders in a heap of a dozen-odd candidates from both parties who will be competing in a free-for-all, off-cycle “jungle primary” necessitated by the retirement of incumbent Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. The top two finishers in the primary will proceed to a runoff if no one finishes above 50%.

Isakson, a strong supporter of the State of Israel who is of Swedish descent despite his Jewish-sounding last name, resigned his seat in December on account of the effects of Parkinson’s disease. His replacement, the scandal-plagued Sen. Kelly Loeffler, became infamous for using what are alleged to be ambiguously licit stock tricks to profit off of America’s coronavirus misery. She is currently leading in the polls.

Though he seems to be leading the Democratic field, Lieberman is now projected to miss the cut for the runoff, which seems likely to be fought between Loeffler and Republican challenger Congressman Doug Collins. In an apparent attempt to unite Democratic voters behind a single African American candidate, both the chair of the state Democratic Party and the president of the Georgia NAACP recently attacked Lieberman for his portrayal of an overly racist character in a novel he self-published in 2018, which has been wielded as evidence that Lieberman might himself be a racist—though Lieberman has valiantly refused to let himself be canceled.

Ossoff’s race against single-term incumbent David Perdue is one of the national barometers for how badly Republicans might lose in November. Ossoff is exactly the kind of candidate who would herald the spread of a recognizably coastal brand of politics, and if he wins, he would show that Georgia is on the same trajectory as North Carolina or even Virginia, places at different stages of the same nationally consequential journey from red to blue. A Perdue victory would prove that the underlying electoral dynamics in gradually purpling Southeastern states remain fairly resilient.

The Senate’s future will hinge on a series of tight races not unlike this one. An Ossoff victory would be a key instance of suburban voters forsaking the Trump-era Republican Party and a sign of social transformation in former Republican strongholds, in part due to the flight of urban voters from cities whose politics they favor but whose social problems—which the coronavirus and other upheavals are likely to accelerate—they are wealthy and mobile enough to escape.

Ossoff would be a notably bland agent of such a momentous shift, although that might be what makes the pitch so effective. He’s a 33-year-old skinny white man with an Obamaist ethos and vibe, and fairly conventional views on foreign policy, immigration, and a range of other hot-button issues. He comes from two of the traditional incubators of liberal power, namely the Washington policymaking apparatus, where he was Congressman Hank Johnson’s national security staffer, and the media, where he led a company that produced investigative news documentaries. A win would show that even in Georgia the national party’s electoral chances aren’t sunk by progressive excesses elsewhere, as long as its candidates are some ideal combination of politically boring and personally magnetic, as Ossoff seems to be.

If Ossoff represents one future for Democrats, Lieberman can’t help but hearken back to the party’s past. Sons are not their fathers, of course, but it is sobering to consider that it’s been a mind-boggling 14 years since current Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont defeated the now 78-year-old Joe in a Democratic Senate primary in which the main issue was the Iraq War. The excision of the party’s Iraq War cheerleaders was of course highly selective, seeing as one of them is now on the verge of being elected president. But the elder Lieberman has been unique in refusing to reinvent himself or issue mea culpas. He is still an unshakable pillar of the once dominant liberal-at-home, hawkish-abroad, Democratic worldview, long after nearly the entirety of his former party has abandoned that position. Whether one thinks Joe Lieberman is an embarrassing curio or the last of his cohort with any real principle doesn’t change the fact he came within a hanging chad of the vice presidency as recently as 19 and 3/4 years ago.

For his part, Matt Lieberman is now promising to “change a broken Washington,” though his website offers scant detail on what he means by this. Like his father before him, Lieberman is likely to be a casualty of the party’s march to the future, albeit a less consequential one. Right now, the smart money’s on Loeffler and Republican Rep. Doug Collins advancing to the runoff, with the Stacey Abrams-endorsed Raphael Warnock, the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor, threatening Lieberman’s hold on Democratic voters.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.