MONROE — There may be no greater test of Donald Trump’s clout in the midterm election than the congressional race he just upended in northeast Georgia.
Determined to remake the state GOP in his mold, Trump struck a deal with former Democrat Vernon Jones to drop out of an unwinnable race for governor and switch to the 10th Congressional District with his blessing.
Trump is placing a bet that the endorsement he bestowed Wednesday is so powerful that a district of mostly rural white voters will elect to the U.S. House a former Democrat with a history of scandal while leading liberal DeKalb County.
He’s putting his faith in Jones, who voted against Gov. Brian Kemp’s anti-abortion legislation as a Democratic legislator and only formally switched to the GOP during a rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, shortly before the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Jones faces a difficult political path. Almost a dozen Republican candidates are already in the race for the 10th District, which stretches from the outskirts of Henry County in metro Atlanta to the border of South Carolina.
And many longtime local Republicans have already lined up behind a familiar face: Mike Collins, a pro-Trump local businessman who narrowly lost to U.S. Rep. Jody Hice in a 2014 runoff.
“It’s an uphill climb for Vernon Jones here. He’s from DeKalb. He was a Democrat up until last year. How do we trust him?” said Flip Johns, a retiree from Monticello who backs Collins. “Jones is an excellent speaker, but he’ll say anything to get elected.”
And yet, even many Collins supporters privately admit that Jones will be a formidable challenger. At the Pot Luck diner in downtown Monroe, a favorite gathering spot of local leaders, the conversation was abuzz with speculation about how Jones would fare.
David Clemons, the editor and publisher of The Walton Tribune, said the power of Trump’s endorsement can’t easily be dismissed in territory he dominated in 2020.
“Just look around — you still see Trump stickers and flags everywhere in Walton County,” Clemons said of the district’s GOP base, which the then-president carried with 74% of the vote in 2020. “His word goes a long way here. An endorsement that strong will make people consider Vernon Jones.”
A crowded contest
Clemons’ description of Trump’s level of support was no understatement.
Trump taped a video endorsement that described Jones as a “very special person” and a “true patriot” that the candidate quickly promoted to hundreds of thousands of his social media followers.
“He’s an America First fighter who will never back down to either the establishment or the radical left,” Trump said. “Few fought harder for election integrity in 2020 than Vernon, and he’s a big supporter of a very good man running for governor, David Perdue.”
Jones joined a growing slate of candidates endorsed by Trump, who has vowed to defeat Kemp and other Republicans who didn’t heed his demands to illegally overturn his election defeat.
Credit: JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL
Credit: JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL
Hice is leaving his seat in Congress to challenge Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with Trump’s support. The former president has also backed former football star Herschel Walker for the U.S. Senate, state Sen. Burt Jones for lieutenant governor and Perdue against Kemp.
It’s the latter race — the contest for governor — that triggered the domino effect that led Jones to run for Congress with Trump’s backing.
Jones, the former chief executive of DeKalb County, the state’s most important Democratic stronghold, waged failed bids for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and DeKalb sheriff as a Democrat before winning a seat in the state Legislature.
Ignored by his fellow Democrats in the Legislature, he began a political metamorphosis in early 2020 when he endorsed Trump’s reelection bid and began rubbing shoulders with state GOP officials who once shunned him.
He found a receptive audience. Soon, Jones was traveling across the nation as a Black surrogate for the then-president. He quickly landed a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, and he crowd-surfed at Trump rallies.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Even his longtime GOP critics seemed willing to overlook a long history of allegations of sexual assault that he has denied, along with accusations of harassing women uncovered in a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination of his record.
When Jones announced his challenge to Kemp last year, he positioned himself as a far-right Republican who claimed that Trump would have still been president had he been governor.
But his gubernatorial campaign got little traction, and Trump’s endorsement of Perdue left Jones with no shot at victory. Still, Jones’ standing in polls, including a recent survey that showed him at 10%, gave him leverage to extract concessions.
He struck a deal with the former president’s camp to quit the race for governor and endorse Perdue, giving the former U.S. senator a chance to unify Trump loyalists. In exchange, senior Republicans say, Trump agreed to endorse Jones’ congressional bid and tape a video for him.
On social media this week, Jones quickly branded himself the “Black Donald Trump.” On Fox News, he said he has a deep connection with voters in the district despite not living among them.
“The left has taken this country too far to the left. That’s why I identify with the 10th Congressional District,” Jones said. “Those people have values like mine, conservative values, faith-based, hardworking, entrepreneurial spirit, things of that nature.”
A ‘chameleon’ or a conservative?
He won’t be the first Georgia Republican who switched races to compete under a pro-Trump banner. Marjorie Taylor Greene ditched a suburban U.S. House race in 2020 to run for a vacant House seat in northwest Georgia. She later won Trump’s support and then moved into her district. It’s uncertain whether Jones will change his residence to a 10th District location.
But there are signs that Trump’s influence, even among hardcore Republicans, is starting to fade. An AJC poll in January found that only 42% of Republicans, and about 20% of all registered Georgia voters, said they’d be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by Trump.
“I don’t care what Trump says about this race. I’ll vote for Trump, but I won’t vote for Vernon,” said Lenny Vella, a retiree from Monroe. “I knew Mike’s daddy and I know him. He’s a good, honest guy. Vernon doesn’t stand a chance.”
Jones is not well known in the district and will have to spend heavily ahead of the May 24 primary to raise his profile. A recent local poll showed Collins, the son of former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, with a commanding lead — and Jones with negligible support.
Other contenders include Patrick Witt, an ex-Trump administration official; former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun; state Rep. Timothy Barr, who has Hice’s blessing; and David Curry, a onetime state revenue commissioner.
An awkward start also complicated Jones’ debut. He announced Monday that he was running for Congress without disclosing which district, then released a website claiming he was endorsed by Trump before the former president announced his support.
Still, his opponents aren’t taking him lightly. While both Kemp and Perdue ignored Jones in the gubernatorial race, the Republicans in the contest for Congress can’t afford to overlook him.
Collins’ campaign, which had prepared for weeks for Jones’ long-expected switch, released a digital ad detailing a long list of Jones-related controversies, noting his long liberal voting record and the accusations of harassment he has denied.
“Scandal-plagued Vernon Jones has been running for office as a Democrat since 1990,” the ad said. “He’s a lot of things: Conman, charlatan, chameleon, criminal. But he’s no conservative.”
There are already signs the pro-Trump crowd is rallying around Jones. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who twice pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, withdrew his endorsement of Collins on Wednesday and backed Jones.
Clemons, the local newspaperman, said the race is up for grabs.
“And the only way Jones can possibly win,” Clemons said, “is because he has Trump’s endorsement.”
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