Even so, he believes he can win running as a Republican and an ardent supporter of former President Donald Trump. His campaign signs carry the warning “Stop Socialism. Save America,” a slogan borrowed from controversial U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who represents Georgia’s deeply conservative 14th District.
“This is not a publicity stunt,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This is not about me. This is about the community and what is best for the community.”
In some respects, this is the moment Doles has been waiting for. His campaign rhetoric — peppered with diatribes against Critical Race Theory, illegal immigration and the left-wing social justice movement — bears striking similarities to mainline Republican candidates in Georgia and elsewhere.
And the current political climate has allowed some candidates with checkered pasts — even checkered presents — to mount successful campaigns.
This month, at least seven people who were at the Jan. 6 Trump rally won public office in races around the nation. In North Carolina, Democrats in the state House stormed out when the Republican caucus seated its newest member, a former county commissioner who marched on the Capitol and was “gassed three times” and was at the Capitol door when it was breached, but said he was not involved in the violence.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist with the RAND Corp. and an expert on political disinformation, said candidates with Doles’ background have good reasons to see an opening in mainstream politics. The rapid spread of disinformation on social media, a hyperpolarized political environment and the increase power of partisan rhetoric have created fertile ground for such campaigns, she said.
“For candidates who are in the extreme wings of a party, this is an environment in which they see opportunities,” she said. “If you can wrap yourself in the cloak of a party, ... you can win a pretty sizable support base, even if you have other factors that would previously be disqualifying.”
Even someone like Doles, a 61-year-old ex-con who could not even vote until a judge restored that right to him last year, can use his outsider status to attract support from an electoral increasingly distrustful of political institutions and the media, Kavanagh said.
“Maybe my unique experience and things I shouldn’t have been involved in and extreme behavior — maybe it brings a whole different perspective,” he said. “I’m definitely about draining the local swamp. We’re going to replace politicians with patriots.”
Doles said his campaign message is the same one he has been delivering for decades. It just wasn’t popular then, he said.
“Then it wasn’t a household name, but what I was talking about was CRT. Now it’s in everybody’s house. I was talking about teaching our young impressionable children — 18, 19, coming out of high school — to be left-wing radical revolutionaries in the streets,” he said.
He points to Black Lives Matter and the sometimes violent and chaotic social justice protests of the spring and summer of 2020.
“If it would’ve been white nationalists doing that, we would have been under the federal prison for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Still, Doles is a longshot candidate. Andrew B. Hall, a Stanford University political science professor and co-director of the Democracy and Polarization Lab, said there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that mass voter opinion favors extreme candidates for office.
However, Hall said the lack of competition for local political office can create opportunities for more fringe candidates to run.
“Regardless of what voter opinion is, there’s a lot of space for (extreme) movements to seek people to win some of these offices,” he said.
The AJC reached out to the 9th District Republican Party for comment on Doles’ candidacy. In an emailed statement, Chairwoman Rebecca Yardley said the GOP “condemns white supremacy, racism, and bigotry in all its ugly forms,” but declined to comment on Doles specifically because “the 9th District GOP does not get involved in primary elections.”
“We are confident that the voters of Lumpkin County will make the right decision for their community,” she said.
A dangerous past
Doles is running against incumbent Commissioner Rhett Stringer, a business owner and conservative Republican with deep roots in the community. Stringer said he is aware of Doles’ intention to run, but he was reluctant to say much about him on the record.
Stringer did wonder if Doles’ serious criminal convictions disqualified him for office. “I know the elections staff will do their due diligence,” he said.
Doles and a fellow Klansman were convicted in 1993 on federal charges related to the beating of a Black man in Maryland. Doles was sentenced to seven years in prison and served four. In 2003, Doles, then an activist with the National Alliance, was arrested on federal firearms charges. That charge netted him another four years in prison.
“This is not a publicity stunt. This is not about me."
- Chester Doles, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan and candidate for the Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners
In 2016, Doles was arrested for his part in a brawl in a Dahlonega bar. The police report identified him as a leader in the Hammerskins, a racist skinhead gang. In that case, he was sentenced to probation.
Doles disputes the official record of these arrests and convictions, claiming misunderstandings or extenuating circumstances in each. Regardless, he claims he has made a clean break from his past with a “reconciliation” service in the church of Derrick Grayson, a Black preacher and three-time Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia. Grayson is himself a fringe political figure who uses his social media accounts to spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Doles’ claims of leaving white supremacist activism behind are flimsy. His social media account is filled with clues, including one instance where Doles passed along a message from a reputed member of the Hammerskins who was trying to reach a Klan member.
“I don’t burn bridges,” Doles said of passing along the message. “I didn’t ask them, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ ... Just an old friend who asked me to pass it on. I don’t see no harm in that.”
He also recently reposted messages from the leader of the white nationalist League of the South, adding “with my dearest and utmost respect.”
Earlier this month, he made a trip to Wildman’s, an infamous racist memorabilia shop in Kennesaw, for an interview with a German documentary on American politics and society.
While he was there, Doles posed with the shop’s owner and snapped a photo of a David Duke campaign sign, which he later posted on his social media profile. “Found this at Wildman’s,” he wrote.
Doles’ approach mirrors that taken by former Klan leader Duke in 1991 when he ran for governor of Louisiana. Duke’s white supremacist activism was well known, but as a candidate, Duke said those days were behind him.
“We all have things in our past that we regret. What I did then was youthful indiscretion,” he told the Washington Post at the time.
Doles’ response is eerily similar when asked about his time as a leader in hate groups.
“Everyone knows I’ve made my youthful indiscretions in life,” he said. “I wish I would missed that whole chapter in my life.”
Doles’ pivot toward politics isn’t new. While still in prison, Doles told a Washington Post reporter he had “retired” from the Klan and had cut his long hair into his now trademark crewcut as part of a rebranding with the National Alliance.
“I definitely follow the Nazis,” Doles told the Post. “National Socialism is my religion. I believe in it and I look for the Fourth Reich.”
This time out Doles is remaking himself for this political moment, seizing on themes already present and edging them slightly farther toward the dystopian future he sees around the corner. The breakup of the United States is “inevitable,” he said.
“I seen this coming,” he said. “We’re so divided we will never live under what the extreme left are asking for.”
That’s the future he saw in the riotous mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“One of the other reasons I’m running for county commissioner and not something ridiculous like Congress or state Senate is I think if this thing does pop off and things go south in America with martial law and all that, it’s going to be your local sheriff and county commissioners that’s going to mean something in your area,” he said.
Hall, the Stanford political scientist, Doles and other would-be candidates see an opportunity to harness anger over the 2020 presidential election to push American politics into further polarization. However, he sees a subtle shift in momentum.
“I’m noticing more and more Republican politicians to say they should be looking to the future and not relitigating the past,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats, Hall said, are worried that catering to the fringes of their parties is a bad long-term strategy.
As more attention is paid to extremists attempting to attach themselves to the major parties, Hall predicts a backlash.
“Hopefully the system will recalibrate,” he said.
Electing candidates on the fringes of either party is problematic, Kavanagh said.
“If we end up electing a lot of candidates that are in the extreme right or the extreme left, not only does it increase the risk of rapid policy swings or policy outcomes that may end up having unintended negative consequences, but it makes it really difficult for actual governing to happen,” she said.