Georgia has two contentious primary runoffs Tuesday in two open North Georgia seats that are among the country’s most pro-Trump districts. And each runoff features a candidate that makes the state’s incumbent Republicans nervous.
All those running in the 9th and 14th Congressional Districts support the president and the Second Amendment. But the runoffs reflect a race to the right within the party, as the state as a whole becomes more of a toss-up.
The races have statewide implications, said Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia, because they show the kinds of candidates appealing to some of the state’s conservative base.
“It will make it harder then, for Republicans who are sensitive to the growing Democratic strength in the state to moderate,” he said, because they will risk alienating their conservative voters “at their peril.”
In the 14th District, in northwest Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene has made the most headlines. She won 40% of the votes in the June primary after the construction executive moved her campaign from the suburban Atlanta 6th District in December.
She has repeated the QAnon conspiracy theory, but it’s been controversial statements about Muslim members of Congress and Democratic donor George Soros unearthed by Politico that quickly isolated her from members of the Republican caucus. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia rescinded his endorsement after the videos surfaced.
Many of the state’s elected officials have instead thrown their support behind her opponent, neurosurgeon and political newcomer John Cowan whose slogan says “all of the conservative, none of the embarrassment.”
Cowan argues that Greene was able to do well in the primary because of her ability to self-fund advertisements during a pandemic, and because her campaign had been organized far longer.
“And I think now that we’ve had several debates, we’ve been able to get out and talk to people. They see who the real John Cowan is,” he said. “And most importantly, they see who the real Marjorie Greene is, and it scares them.”
Greene, has called Cowan a “RINO” or Republican In Name Only.
“He would be just pretty much the same as Mitt Romney,” she said in a recent Facebook video.
According to Eric Sands, political science professor at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, the candidates represent “two different kinds of Republicans” in the GA-14: “populist” and “mainstream.” And mainstream Republicans, he said, are “terrified of what [Greene] might end up saying if she became a member of the House of Representatives that would then end up reflecting badly on the party.”
Sands points out that while the two candidates agree on the big issues, you have “two very different images.”
“I think that’s a split that we’re seeing in the Republican Party,” he said. “I think this goes back to 2016 when the Republican establishment had absolutely no idea what to do with Donald Trump.”
In the other primary runoff in the 9th District, both candidates are also running very conservative campaigns, but ironically, state Rep. Matt Gurtler, the candidate with legislative experience, is the candidate who has isolated the state’s Republican “establishment.”
“I’m the most hated man in the Georgia by the establishment Republicans because I don’t go along with what they want me to go along with,” he said.
Gurtler has angered his colleagues in the General Assembly over the years by voting no on anything that expands government, including the state budget.
He said his unwillingness to “compromise on principles” appeals to his voters.
“They want a proven fighter, and they need people to go up to D.C. so they can call out the Democrats but also the RINO Republicans,” he said.
For Gurtler, it’s the state’s Republicans “compromising” that has led to the increasing strength of Georgia Democrats.
“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot, and the state will turn blue because we’re not being real Republicans,” he said.
Republican leaders and officials have flocked to Gurtler’s opponent, Andrew Clyde, a veteran without elected experience who owns a gun store and successfully sued the IRS for wrongfully seizing funds from his business.
He and Gurtler agree on many policies, including the need to dismantle the IRS. Clyde, on his website, also pledges to fight Democrats: “I fought terrorists in the deserts of Iraq, I defeated corrupt IRS bureaucrats in the legislature and I will take on socialist democrats and the establishment in Washington.”
Bullock said the state’s more conventional GOP officeholders realize that if Gurtler is elected, “they’re not going to see much in the way of federal money coming into their local communities … And I think maybe Gurtler might well say he doesn’t want federal funds.”
Martha Zoller, a conservative talk show host in northeast Georgia who once ran in the 9th District, said the runoff reveals the district has gotten more conservative. And that the same party has controlled it for two decades.
“It’s kind of the age-old question of when you are in power, when you are the majority, you start to faction out a little bit because you don’t have a common enemy anymore,” she said. “Democrats have a common enemy: It’s Republicans.”