Democrat Kevin Van Ausdal abruptly ended his long-shot campaign for Congress on Friday against Marjorie Taylor Greene, a move that gave the controversial Republican an even clearer path to a seat in the U.S. House.
UPDATE: Why Marjorie Taylor Greene’s opponent quit the US House 14 race
The announcement came hours before U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, who was already planning to vacate the seat, disclosed he would retire in October - roughly three months before his term ends.
The two developments in the deeply-conservative northwest Georgia district caught officials in both parties off guard and raised questions about the possibility of a special election to fill the seat for a few weeks.
Van Ausdal revealed he was abandoning the 14th District race in a statement that cited “personal and family reasons” that forced him to leave the state. His campaign aide later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Van Ausdal quit his bid after his wife served him divorce papers and he was poised to move in with relatives in Indiana.
“We told him there’s no wiggle room here,” said Michael McGraw, the candidate’s principal consultant, who added that Van Ausdal didn’t face any threats or coercion to leave the race. “We are deeply saddened because the campaign was taking off in a lot of ways."
Van Ausdal’s resignation makes it a near certainty that Greene, already heavily favored to carry the district, will win the November race. She posted well wishes to him on Twitter before declaring herself the victor, saying "no one will fight harder against the radical, Socialist Democrats than me.”
Soon after, Graves announced he would step down in October but planned to “finish strong.” He said one of the last votes he would cast involves a modernization effort to “make Congress work better for those we serve.”
It’s not yet clear whether will be a special election to fill the remainder of Graves' term, though Gov. Brian Kemp’s office indicated he intends to issue a writ within 10 days that could set up a vote.
Graves' office said the timing of the announcement to Van Ausdal’s withdrawal was coincidental. Graves had informed family, friends and colleagues over the past few days of his decision to step down early.
Greene, a Republican who moved to northwest Georgia to run for the seat, is a controversial figure who has spread baseless QAnon conspiracy theories, posted racist and xenophobic videos on social media, and called U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “bitch.”
Although his candidacy was a long shot, Van Ausdal’s resignation still came as a surprise.
“I’m the chair of the county party and I didn’t know about it until this morning," said Cathy Griffith of the Catoosa County Democrats. “We’ll figure out something — hopefully.”
Even before he stepped down, the odds were already stacked against Van Ausdal. The northwest Georgia district is one of the most reliably Republican territories on the East Coast, and Greene handily won an August runoff against Rome neurosurgeon John Cowan to represent the seat.
The Democratic Party of Georgia immediately called on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to disqualify Van Ausdal from the ballot and allow the party “to name a replacement as soon as possible” — much like what happened after U.S. Rep. John Lewis' death in July.
But Democrats may not get the same chance in this race. Georgia law says that vacancies in these sort of elections "created by reason of the withdrawal of a candidate less than 60 days prior to the date of the election shall not be filled.” Friday marked 53 days until the general election.
The Georgia secretary of state’s office said the state code does not allow another Democrat to run.
“The law is clear," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said. "Mr. Van Ausdal can withdraw his candidacy or remain on the ballot. He cannot be replaced.”
Still, Democrats began preparing contingency plans. Several local activists quickly compiled a list of potential contenders. Among the names is Bobby Lee Cook, the famed defense attorney in Summerville who was a model for the television series “Matlock.”
“We hate this has happened and that we lost Kevin, but we don’t want to leave the seat unchallenged and we’re trying to find someone in the district that has some state- and national-level experience," said Jeff Adair, who heads the Gordon County Democratic Party. “We don’t have to roll over and play dead.”
One congressional Republican jumped to congratulate Greene.
“Congratulations to Georgia’s new Congresswoman,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, a candidate for the U.S. Senate.