NW Ga. Republican congressional candidates gunning for votes in runoff

By: - July 19, 2020 9:52 pm

Northwest Georgia voters picked Marjorie Taylor Greene to represent their Northwest Georgia district in Congress. She has backed QAnon conspiracy theories and made disparaging comments about Black people and Muslims. Her campaign ads emphasize her commitment to the Second Amendment.

A congressional race in a solid Republican northwestern Georgia district has garnered national attention, because a leading contender for the seat, Marjorie Taylor Greene, has QAnon conspiracy theories and made disparaging comments about Black people and Muslims.

But closer to home, she also faces charges from her Republican primary opponent that she would bring shame on an area that she scarcely knows.

“Marjorie Greene would embarrass the state, would cause problems for Republicans running in other districts, and she’s incapable of effectively representing the interests of northwest Georgia in Congress,” said John Cowan, a neurosurgeon facing Greene in a Republican primary runoff election on Aug. 11. “People are beginning to take note and sound the alarm.”

The outcome of the race is hard to predict, especially because turnout in runoff elections is notoriously low. But the results could reverberate far beyond the 14th congressional district, said Georgia State University political science professor Amy Steigerwalt.

Amy Steigerwalt

“The Georgia Republican Party has to be really concerned about this,” Steigerwalt said. “This is not the road they want to go down.” 

Republican officials have been trying to broaden the party’s base as Georgia’s population has become more diverse and its statewide races have become more competitive, she noted. That wider appeal will be especially important this November, when the presidential race is expected to be close, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot and several U.S. House seats are in play, too.

If Greene ends up on the ticket in November, Republican candidates will have to decide whether to welcome her or disavow her. In Washington, Republican leaders declined to support U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa in his 2018 re-election bid, because of his ties to white supremacists. The GOP leaders later stripped him of his committee assignments after he questioned why white supremacy should be considered offensive. 

King lost in a Republican primary this year, but his treatment by Republican leaders sets a precedent that could apply to Greene, Steigerwalt said.

“That becomes a question that gets posed to every single candidate who is on the ballot in November who is representing the Republican Party,” she said. “She’s going to potentially be an elected representative from the state of Georgia. If she wins, do you think she should be seated? Do you think she should get committee assignments? Those aren’t questions that you [as a candidate] want to ever have to have posed to you or to have to answer.”

In fact, Democrats have already tried to make Greene’s first-place finish an issue for Republican candidates in other Georgia districts. 

Cowan and Greene were the top two vote-getters in a nine-way primary contest to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Graves on June 9. Even though Greene, a businesswoman, beat Cowan by a nearly 2-1 margin, Georgia law requires a runoff election if no candidate garners a majority. The winner of the Republican runoff is expected to win easily in the November general election.

Both Greene and Cowan have cast themselves as unabashed conservatives in the race. Greene has vowed to fight “socialists” in Washington, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and former Vice President Joe Biden, all Democrats. 

Cowan, meanwhile, describes himself as “pro-Trump, pro-life and pro-gun.” Cowan’s campaign manager, Spencer Hogg, also described congressional Democrats as veering toward socialism. “But what I would say is: It’s easy to say you’re going to stop socialism. It’s another thing to have a plan of how to do it,” he said. 

John Cowan aims to show he’s got Second Amendment credentials too as he wore a sidearm to meet with Floyd County Sheriff Tim Burkhalter. Cowan is in an Aug. 11 runoff against Marjorie Taylor Greene to represent the 14th congressional district in northwest Georgia. Contributed by the Cowan campaign

When U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont pushes for Medicare for All, Cowan would be well-positioned to respond because of his knowledge of the health care industry, Hogg said. “That is the issue, more than anything else, that John Cowan can go on Day One to help stop the liberal assault on the health care system in our country,” he added.

The campaign’s message to voters, Hogg said, is, “If you vote John Cowan on August 11th, you get all of the conservative with none of the embarrassment.”

The Greene campaign did not respond to emailed questions or requests for an interview.

Greene was the only woman in the June contest, and she also outspent her rivals. Greene runs a general contracting business out of Alpharetta, a northern suburb of Atlanta, with her husband. She loaned her own campaign $700,000, which helped bring her fundraising total to more than $1.1 million by late May, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cowan’s whole campaign, by comparison, had brought in almost $700,000 in that time.

But the dynamics of the race shifted dramatically a week after the initial contest, when Politico unearthed several videos of Greene making offensive remarks. 

She attacked Muslim members of Congress and a Muslim candidate for the Florida state legislature, as well as Muslims more broadly. “If you want Islam and Sharia law, you stay over there in the Middle East,” she said in one video. “You stay there, and you go to Mecca and do all your thing. And, you know what, you can have a whole bunch of wives, or goats, or sheep, or whatever you want. You stay over there. But in America, see, we’ve made it this great, great country. We don’t want it messed up.”

Greene also called white men the most oppressed group in the United States today, said Black people should look at Confederate monuments with pride because of all the progress Black people have made since the Civil War, and accused George Soros, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who has funded many liberal causes, of collaborating with Nazis. Media Matters, a liberal group that tracks conservative politicians, also documented many instances in which Greene appears to have backed theories advanced by QAnon, a far-right conspiracy that the FBI has cited as a domestic terrorism threat.

“This is a time where all Americans, we are very aware of the fact of an existence of the deep state, and this is something that’s talked about by Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh and many others,” Greene said when asked about her controversial comments on Sunday’s Atlanta Press Club virtual debate.

“If you’re a Republican and if you are unapologetically conservative like I am, you’re going to see people like me called a racist even when it’s very unwarranted,” she said.

The revelations prompted Republican officials from around the country to denounce Greene or withdraw support from her. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s spokesman called Greene’s comments “appalling,” while House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said he would back Cowan in the race.

But President Donald Trump called her a “big winner” in a tweet on the night of the primary election. The president hasn’t weighed in on the contest since Greene’s past remarks came to light. 

Rather than focus on the national maelstrom created by Greene’s comments, Cowan has tried to emphasize the local dynamics. 

In doing so, he’s pointed out that Greene only recently moved to the district in order to run for the congressional seat. In fact, Greene originally planned to run as a candidate this year in a different congressional district, a swing district in the Atlanta suburbs now represented by U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat. 

Even before Greene’s controversy erupted, Cowan had started up racking up the endorsements of local officials. Many more started backing him since.

“Nearly 90 elected officials in the district have endorsed me and zero have endorsed her. Zero,” Cowan said in a statement. (The tally is now more than 100 officials.) “She’s not from the district, 96 percent of her funding is from outside the district and her endorsements come from outside the district. We need to send her back home to Atlanta.”

Hogg added in an interview that Greene could not appreciate the small-town “values” of the district as a suburban transplant, or the needs of its various industries such as farming, medical equipment production or carpet manufacturing.  On Twitter, Greene has been defiant even after the controversy broke. “The Fake News Media, the DC Swamp, and their radical leftist allies see me as a very serious threat. I will not let them whip me into submission,” she said after the Politico story appeared. “I whipped John Cowan 2 to 1 last week, winning 11 out of 12 counties… And I will beat him again on August 11th by an even bigger margin because Northwest Georgia voters want a fighter who will stand up for what we believe. And it’s obvious that person is not John Cowan.”

Georgia Recorder Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report. 

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Daniel C. Vock
Daniel C. Vock

Daniel C. Vock is a national reporter based in Washington, D.C. He has covered a wide range of public policy, with a particular emphasis on states and local governments. He has been a staff writer for Governing magazine, Stateline and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.