Why are these longtime conservatives in Oconee County running as Democrats?

A pair of ‘renegades’ in northeast Georgia are running as Democrats. Party leaders aren’t happy.
Suzannah Heimel, left, and Laura King have provoked controversy in Oconee County by running as Democrats despite their conservative leanings. They hope to start a trend. CONTRIBUTED.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Suzannah Heimel, left, and Laura King have provoked controversy in Oconee County by running as Democrats despite their conservative leanings. They hope to start a trend. CONTRIBUTED.

During a packed forum featuring far-right candidates in Oconee County, Suzannah Heimel addressed the elephant in the room. She’s a proud conservative, she told them, yet she’s set to be the Democratic nominee for a County Commission seat in solidly GOP territory.

“Why am I running as a Democrat?” she asked after acknowledging the rumors of her partisan allegiance were true. “I am running as a Democrat because I don’t identify as a Republican right now.”

Something strange is happening in Oconee, a county so steeped in GOP politics that Democrat Stacey Abrams barely got 1 in 4 of its residents votes in the last race for governor.

A handful of conservatives are running as Democrats for county posts, openly promoting themselves at GOP gatherings as the best choice — despite the “D” beside their names. And it’s infuriated loyal Democrats and Republicans.

Heimel and Laura King, a candidate for county clerk, both ran unopposed and are set to be the Democratic nominees against Republican incumbents. Another Democratic contender disavowed by the local party, school board candidate Sheri Ward Long, has kept a lower profile in her more crowded race.

Heimel and King are betting that qualifying as Democrats increases their odds despite the county’s deep-red roots.

This isn’t a case of longtime conservative Democrats who refuse to abandon their ties to the party. Both might as well be campaigning as DINOs — Democrats in name only — given their conservative leanings. Nor is it an example of longtime Republicans who no longer relate to the party of Donald Trump.

Their decision to run with a “D” by their names in one of the reddest counties of Georgia has set off alarm bells among local leaders from both parties.

“I think they’re just trying to manipulate the system to keep them relevant until November,” said Harold Thompson, the local Democratic Party chair. “They admit they wouldn’t survive a GOP primary.”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like this before,” said Kathy Hurley, the Oconee GOP chair. “I’ve lived in big cities, I’ve lived in small towns. And nothing like this has happened before.”

Heimel said the backlash has even surprised her. She’s been booed at local Democratic meetings and the Oconee GOP has rejected her request to speak at its events because, well, she’s running as a Democrat.

“Boy, have I stirred the pot here,” she said. “We are a Republican county, but I didn’t expect the outcry.”


In other parts of the state, conservative activists are trying to block Republicans who disagree with local parties from running on the GOP ticket. In Oconee, conservative activists are openly competing as Democrats.

But it’s hard to accuse Heimel, a property manager, and King, a schoolteacher, of hiding their true colors. They are open about their political leanings, though Heimel dubs herself a “moderate Democrat” and King calls herself a “fierce independent.”

Gov. Brian Kemp once faced questions about the accuracy of the 2020 election from Suzannah Heimel, who -- while still identifying herself as conservative -- is running as a Democrat for a County Commission seat in solidly red Oconee County. Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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Heimel has boasted of confronting Gov. Brian Kemp about the accuracy of the 2020 election, and she wore a “Let’s Go, Brandon” shirt popular with Trump supporters to a recent school board meeting. She only recently stopped attending local GOP meetings and rails against “liberal” policies.

“No, I probably won’t vote for anything that Democrats like,” Heimel said in an interview. “But I feel like we have a lot in common. We want to get along, and we want to live in peace.”

Still, she told Republicans at the Conservatives of Northeast Georgia Forum this month that she ran as a Democrat so she can lock up the party’s nomination on May 21 and work to oust GOP incumbent Mark Thomas. (In a statement, Thomas said he respected her “right to run.”)

King, too, laces her remarks with critiques of Democratic stances, including the party’s approach to immigration and election issues. But she said Republicans, too, are plagued with problems.

“Most political leadership has let us down,” she said. “Are they compromised? Bribed? Inept? Something.”

Lee Becker, a longtime journalism professor at the University of Georgia, has for years chronicled local party events and political developments on his Oconee County Observations blog.

Becker said the newly minted Democrats started as a splinter group within the GOP opposed to mainstream Republican figures. They waited until the last stretch of the March qualifying period to see whether there were any key races with openings, and they seized the opportunity when several Republicans lacked Democratic challengers.

“It illustrates the lack of control that local parties really have over their own operations,” Becker said. “To Democrats, they’re calling themselves ‘moderates.’ They’re telling Republicans they’re conservatives. Really, they are renegades.”

‘We see the game here’

The two have kept a busy schedule on the campaign trail in Oconee, where Republicans dominate countywide posts. Some GOP organizers have blocked them from participating in events, while Democrats only reluctantly allowed them to speak at a recent meeting.

“We didn’t expect them to run. We certainly didn’t reach out to them. They didn’t reach out to us,” Thompson, the local party chair, told several dozen attendees near the end of a lengthy meeting. He then challenged the pair to “try to convince us you are a real Democrat.”

It didn’t go well. Under questioning, Heimel was criticized for writing recently that climate change was “unproven” and acknowledged she hasn’t cast ballots for any Democrats for the past eight years — including White House races.

In her defense, she said, “a lot of Democrats voted for Trump, too.” She was overwhelmed by boos.

King told the crowd she got rid of her TV in 2017 and isn’t “well versed” on national politics. But she said she’s worried that both parties will alienate voters if they don’t “cast our tent wide.”

As the meeting ended, both were pressed on whether they had been involved in Moms for Liberty, the conservative group that has pushed to elect far-right school board members and remove references to race and LGBTQ rights in classrooms. They each acknowledged they had.

A few days later, Thompson was still scratching his head about the two candidates running on the party’s ticket.

“It’s not infuriating, but it’s frustrating,” he said. “We know what they’re trying to do. They’re not fooling anyone. We see the game here.”