Election 2020: Intraparty rancor drives interest in Georgia runoff races

Marjorie Taylor Greene was the top vote-getter in the June 9 GOP primary in northwest Georgia's 14th Congressional District, finishing with more than twice as many votes as her opponent in the Aug. 11 runoff, neurosurgeon John Cowan. But at least five Georgia Republican congressmen, in response to her support for QAnon conspiracy theories and her posting of racist and xenophobic web videos, have said they will not support her.

caption arrowCaption
Marjorie Taylor Greene was the top vote-getter in the June 9 GOP primary in northwest Georgia's 14th Congressional District, finishing with more than twice as many votes as her opponent in the Aug. 11 runoff, neurosurgeon John Cowan. But at least five Georgia Republican congressmen, in response to her support for QAnon conspiracy theories and her posting of racist and xenophobic web videos, have said they will not support her.

Seats up for grabs in three congressional districts, and leaders in two GOP contests have spurred opposition from top Republicans

One candidate for the GOP nomination in a northeast Georgia congressional district accepted an endorsement from a white nationalist. His opponent: a gun store owner who got into a legal fight with the federal government and won.

That same district has a Democratic runoff whose leading candidate recently spent a few nights in jail.

Over in northwest Georgia, one candidate in the 14th District Republican runoff owns a toy company with ties to China. He markets himself as the palatable alternative to his rival, who has expressed support for QAnon conspiracy theories and has posted racist and xenophobic web videos.

In all, there are four congressional runoffs in Georgia representing three districts: two Republican contests and two Democratic. The GOP runoffs have received the most attention because they are open-seat contests in ultraconservative districts where the winner on Aug. 11 will be heavily favored in the general election. And because the leading candidate in each race has cozied up to conservative nationalist elements much to the dismay of establishment Republicans.

The 1st District Democratic runoff between Joyce Marie Griggs and Lisa Ring is sleepy compared with the others. The 14th District race between Marjorie Taylor Greene and neurosurgeon John Cowan has become the most contentious of them all.

After news organizations called attention to problematic comments by Greene on videos posted on her social media and by other right-wing groups, party leaders and elected officials denounced her and shifted support to Cowan. Greene also posts messages and imagery aligned with QAnon, an internet-based network of conspiracy theorists who believe there is a “deep-state” effort to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency. Greene says the media is out to censor her and that Republicans who criticize her are weak.

“For too long, Republicans have played footsie with the DC Swamp,” she wrote on Facebook recently. “I have no time or patience for this nonsense. I’m not politically correct, and I make no apologies for it. I tell it like it is.”

ExploreWhere 14th District Republican runoff candidates stand on the issues

Initially, Cowan’s campaign contrasted his long-standing ties to the community with Greene’s recent move to the district after first campaigning for a U.S. House seat in Atlanta’s suburbs. She moved after launching her campaign earlier this year. The approach didn’t resonate. During the nine-way primary in June, she received more than double the votes that he did.

Now, he is hoping to convince voters that he represents the same values as Greene — pro-Trump, anti-abortion, pro-gun — without the problematic comments that turned the establishment against her.

“All of the conservative, none of the embarrassment” has become his unofficial campaign slogan.

Georgia U.S. Reps. Rick Allen, Buddy Carter, Doug Collins, Drew Ferguson and Austin Scott are among the incumbents who said they would not support Greene. The Republican Jewish Coalition made a rare intervention in a GOP race when it backed Cowan, saying Greene “would take our party in the wrong direction.”

“Greene came to national attention for all the wrong reasons: repeatedly using offensive language in long online video diatribes, promoting bizarre political conspiracy theories, and refusing to admit a mistake after posing for photos smiling side by side with a long-time white supremacist leader,” Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a news release.

The person he is referring to is Chester Doles, a Georgia resident with long-standing ties to white supremacist groups who founded a new group, American Patriots USA, in an attempt to appeal to mainstream conservatives. Greene has been photographed with Doles; but 9th District Republican candidate Matt Gurtler has gone even further.

Gurtler posed for pictures with the neo-Nazi, and Doles has since endorsed his campaign. Gurtler pointed out that his wife is Mexican-American when he faced criticism for associating with Doles; but he did not publicly reject the endorsement.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has said it will not support Gurtler or Greene if either advances to the general election. The organization’s PAC gave Cowan $5,000 last month.

Gurtler’s opponent in the runoff is Andrew Clyde, who owns the Clyde Armory gun shop in Athens. He began speaking up several years ago about the Internal Revenue Service’s practice of flagging and freezing business bank accounts, then worked with Congress to pass a law to limit future occurrences that now bears his name.

ExploreWhere 9th District Republican runoff candidates stand on the issues

Like Greene, Gurtler is unpopular among fellow Republican officeholders but managed to win the most votes in the primary. Skepticism toward Gurtler radiates both from his association with Doles and his reputation as a state representative who cast more dissenting votes than any other member of the Legislature, often against party leaders.

Jen Ryan, a Republican strategist and former spokesperson for Gov. Nathan Deal, urged voters not to send Gurtler or Greene to Washington. Electing either candidate would be “an embarrassment” to Georgia, she said.

Ryan worked for a competing candidate in the 9th District GOP primary, and she leaves little to no doubt about her opinion of Gurtler, who often voted against the state budget and study committees. He was so disliked in the House, members of his own party’s leadership supported his primary opponent in 2018.

Ryan described Gurtler as a “millennial legislator who has never taken responsibility for a single thing.”

“It’s always somebody else’s fault, whether it’s palling around with a white supremacist or threatening a lawsuit against police officers when he was charged with drunk and disorderly conduct,” she said.

But it’s his continued association with Doles and American Patriots USA that she considers the most outrageous. The same goes for Greene, she said.

“For goodness sake, Georgia is home to John Lewis and Dr. (Martin Luther) King,” she said. “And Matt Gurtler and Marjorie are an embarrassment to our party and our state. Voters should know where their sympathies lie before Election Day. Sending them to Washington would be a mistake that everyone in our state would pay for.”

Although a Democrat is unlikely to win in the 9th District, that runoff has also attracted attention because of candidate Brooke Siskin’s legal troubles. The top vote-getter in the June 9 primary was arrested last month in Gwinnett County after refusing a judge’s order to surrender her firearms.

According to local newspaper coverage of the incident, the gun turnover was part of a protection order granted as part of Siskin’s divorce. When months passed with no compliance, the judge ordered her held in custody for a weekend.

Siskin, at a recent debate, said it was a “personal issue” between her and her ex-husband and that she didn’t own the gun she was asked to surrender. The campaign for her opponent, Devin Pandy, a military veteran with no political experience, says her actions tell a different story.

His supporters have accused Siskin of exaggerating her political experience and not speaking truthfully about her divorce or circumstances surrounding her arrest. It’s a pattern of deflection and misinformation that doesn’t bode well for a congressional candidate, they say.

Staff writers Isaac Sabetai and Chris Joyner contributed to this article.

About the Author

Editors' Picks