Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican nominee for Congress in northern Georgia who has expressed support for QAnon, may end up winning her seat on a balk because her Democratic opponent Kevin Van Ausdal has abruptly quit the race.
Naturally, people are reaching for conspiracies to explain the sudden departure. But the reasons appear to be personal: a marital dispute that metastasized in the radiation of a suddenly high-profile political campaign, culminating in a divorce earlier this month. Van Ausdal was always a placeholder candidate in a red district that Democrats had never run a candidate in. He wasn’t expecting the world to be watching him. But then Greene switched from running for Congress in a South Georgia seat to this North Georgia seat, because the voters there were more likely to support her. And, against all sense, she won. Suddenly, Van Ausdal was the wall between crazy and Congress, and he wasn’t ready for it.
The question now is whether Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Raffensperger, will use what discretion he has to allow Democrats to replace Van Ausdal on the ballot. Georgia’s election law doesn’t allow a candidate to withdraw with less than 60 days before Election Day. However, Van Ausdal has left the state entirely with the intent of permanently changing his address, said Michael McGraw, a Democratic Party activist who is on Van Ausdal’s campaign staff. By rendering himself legally ineligible to serve, Van Ausdal is not withdrawing but disqualifying himself — a legal technicality that may provide an opening for the state to act.
Greene’s candidacy has driven Georgia’s political community — Democrats and Republicans alike — to consternation, to the open glee of the online conspiracists she has courted through the race. She has supported QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory about Democrats, a so-called deep state, and sex trafficking, though she told Fox News after winning her primary that she has since begun to question certain QAnon claims. Still, Greene has long friendships with Georgia militia leaders, such as Chris “General Blood Agent” Hill, who leads the Georgia III% Security Force. Greene has “incorporated messaging from extremist organizations such as Georgia Three Percent Security Force Intel Militia, Gun Owners of America and anti-LGBTQ hate groups Mass Resistance and Alliance Defending Freedom,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch project. Last week, Greene posted a photo of herself with a rifle, telling conservatives to go “on the offense” against left-wing members of Congress, with members of “the Squad” pictured.
“She doesn’t know shit about anybody there,” said Cathy Griffith, chair of the Catoosa County Democrats. “She doesn’t know anybody there. She’s got a lot of money. I think it’s an ego trip. She’s a rich woman from wherever the hell she’s from, and she wants to come in, and she thinks because it’s a red area that she can just take over.”
Georgia’s 14th District is exceptionally conservative: The Cook Partisan Voter Index pegs it as an R+27 seat, the 10th-most Republican district in America, carried by President Donald Trump by a 50-point margin. It’s in the northwestern corner of Georgia, stretching from the Appalachian foothills of suburban Chattanooga, south through textile mill country to Rome at the western edge of metro Atlanta. Until 2010, it had been divided among other districts, but Georgia’s rapid population growth won a new district in 2010. In a state that is on the edge of electing Democrats due to the population growth of voters of color and the influence of Atlanta, the legislature carved out a district that’s about 86 percent white. It’s about 40 percent rural with a median income of about $50,000 a year that had been hard hit by manufacturing losses and hospital closures even before Covid-19 began working its way through the South.
Van Ausdal, a first-time candidate and computer tech support administrator, had volunteered himself as a candidate to allow for representation in every district, McGraw said.
No one expected Greene — who had originally been campaigning for a suburban Atlanta district — to switch districts. A few days after Rep. Tom Graves announced his retirement, she changed targets. Georgia does not require a congressional candidate to live in the district they’re running for.
“Ten percent of voters chose her in the primary,” McGraw said, noting that their internal polling surprisingly showed Van Ausdal at over 40 percent. “All the voters should be the ones to decide if she wins or loses.”
Van Ausdal is, for lack of a better word, a generic Democrat. He came to the race with deep passion about health care issues but no real political experience, no war chest, and modest local connections. One has to take a claim about internal poll numbers from a campaign with a grain of salt, but I don’t think 40 percent is surprising, given Greene’s toxicity, the rejection of support from congressional Republicans, and a hard-fought primary. People in Rome are openly wondering if they can write in her primary challenger, neurosurgeon John Cowan, who is a stalwart conservative no less pro-Trump than she, but without an army of 4chan basement dwellers in his wake. The two went at each other with little reserve; their supporters with less. I can imagine some of them crossing party lines to vote for Van Ausdal simply to register their objections, even while voting for Trump at the top of the ticket.
While some House Republican leaders have denounced Greene, Trump tweeted his support for the candidate after she won the Republican primary runoff last month. One wonders to what degree Greene is to QAnon as Michele Bachmann was to the tea party movement — a bellwether of things to come. In Florida, internet provocateur and “proud Islamophobe” Laura Loomer — banned from wide swaths of social media for incendiary and bigoted remarks — won a Republican congressional primary last month, though in a dark-blue Palm Beach district (where Trump is registered to vote) that she is almost certain to lose. QAnon supporter Lauren Boebert deposed Republican Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado in a primary upset that is also a likely general election win. Jo Rae Perkins in Colorado, Theresa Raborn in Illinois, and Mike Cargill and Erin Cruz in California are all Republican primary winners who have adopted QAnon hashtags in their campaigns.
Van Ausdal’s campaign raised more than $100,000 once it became clear that he would be facing Greene, said Vincent Olsziewski, his campaign manager. “I still think there is a chance — a small window — for a viable Democrat to win that seat,” he said. “If we can get the secretary of state to disqualify Kevin, which he should, we can find a viable candidate to run.”