House GOP leaders raced to disavow a Republican congressional candidate who made racist Facebook videos and embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory. But less than two months later, the party has done little to block Marjorie Taylor Greene from winning a seat in the House.
Now, Republicans could be days away from adding their most controversial member yet to the conference in a runoff election in Georgia on Tuesday — a scenario that some lawmakers say should have been entirely avoided.
Of the top three GOP leaders in the House, only House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana has helped Greene’s opponent, neurosurgeon John Cowan, raise money and contributed to his campaign. Outside groups have not made any significant investments in the primary runoff for the solidly red seat, despite pleas from rank-and-file Republicans. And there hasn’t been a tweet from President Donald Trump that could signal to his supporters that they should oppose her.
POLITICO reported in June that Greene had posted hours of Facebook videos in which made a trove of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic comments — including an assertion that Black people “are held slaves to the Democratic Party,” and that George Soros, a Jewish Democratic megadonor, is a Nazi.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in June — through his spokesman, Drew Florio — that he found those comments “appalling,” and he had “no tolerance for them.” But Florio said last week that McCarthy is remaining neutral and letting the primary process play out — a stance that likely does not signal urgency to donors or outside groups.
“This is the kind of race and kind of situation where you need those groups,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), who is actively supporting Cowan. “So often, they only get involved when they have someone that they are trying to get in. But I think it’s just as important they get involved when there’s someone they’re trying to get out.”
The lack of intervention from national Republicans — despite their public rebukes of Greene — has frustrated and baffled GOP lawmakers, strategists and donors, who worry Greene’s victory would be a black eye for the party at a time when they are still grappling with a national reckoning over racial inequality.
And it would diminish the impact of the party’s successful efforts in June to oust GOP Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a member with a long history of racist remarks. If Greene, a vocal QAnon conspiracy theorist and businesswoman, earns the party’s nomination in the deeply conservative district in northwest Georgia, she is almost guaranteed to win a seat in the House.
“I have been very involved in the John Cowan race. I’ve pushed House leadership to get involved, without having success,” added one GOP lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.
The reluctance of McCarthy — who could face a leadership challenge if Trump goes down in November — to get involved in the contest underscores the tough position leadership is in: While it wants to distance the party from the deeply controversial views espoused by Greene, it also don’t want to alienate the hard-line conservative voters who are a key part of Trump’s base heading into the election.
And it’s not just Greene’s race that has spooked House GOP operatives. The primary runoff field for Rep. Doug Collins’ (R-Ga.) neighboring open seat includes state Rep. Matt Gurtler, who came under fire after he posed for a photo with a man with white supremacist ties. But that race, which is also on Tuesday, has seen a rush of outside spending by various PACs.
GOP leadership and the party’s campaign arm don’t typically play in primaries, and it can be risky to take a shot at a fellow Republican and miss: GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming recently came under fire from some House Freedom Caucus members and other Trump allies for supporting a primary opponent to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), among other comments that riled Trump’s most loyal House foot soldiers. Cheney — who was one of the most vocal Republicans in calling on King to step down — later pulled her endorsement of Massie’s primary opponent after past racist tweets from the candidate resurfaced.
When it comes to the matchup between Greene and Cowan, GOP lawmakers and strategists believe that outside help could easily tip the scales. While Greene won the first round of the primary in June by a wide, 19-point margin, the race has drastically tightened in the following weeks: An internal Cowan campaign survey from late July found a tied race between him and Greene.
Plus, Cowan has outspent Greene on TV by about $50,000, according to a source tracking media spending, and outraised her by nearly a 4-to-1 margin in July, signs that point to a well-run campaign.
In an interview, Cowan framed the outcome of the runoff in dire terms, warning that a victory by Greene would endanger Republican candidates who would have to answer for her comments up and down the ballot in Georgia, from the House battlegrounds in suburban Atlanta to the two Senate contests on the November ballot.
“I want to win this race,” he said. “But more than that I want to protect the Republican Party. She is the antithesis of the Republican Party. And she is not conservative — she’s crazy.”
And he warned that Democrats could use her comments to juice up fundraising for their candidates. “She deserves a YouTube channel, not a seat in Congress. She’s a circus act,” Cowan said.
Greene’s campaign did not respond to a request to interview the candidate for this story. Throughout the campaign, she has cast Cowan as insufficiently supportive of Trump because he donated to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the 2016 presidential race. She also has accused him of misrepresenting his role as a reserve deputy in the Floyd County sheriff’s office.
Despite the slew of racist Facebook videos uncovered by POLITICO, Greene still has some high-profile support in Washington: She is backed by the House Freedom Fund, the political arm of the Freedom Caucus; Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a top Trump ally; and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and his wife, Debbie. When the Georgia seat’s incumbent, Rep. Tom Graves, announced his retirement, the Freedom Caucus encouraged Greene to abandon her run in the competitive 6th District, where former GOP Rep. Karen Handel was making a comeback bid, and run for the open seat, which was more conservative, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Greene said in a recent interview with a local news station that she and McCarthy have spoken “several times” since the POLITICO story was published, and they have a “great relationship.” She also claimed that McCarthy’s statement of condemnation — which was distributed by a staffer — was just a “miscommunication.”
McCarthy’s spokesman confirmed that he has “spoken several times on the phone with both Greene and Cowan in recent weeks” and has “a good and productive relationship with both,” but did not comment on the veracity of Greene’s statement.
Cowan described his communication with McCarthy as a “good conversation,” according to Carter. “Now, what happened after that, I don’t know,” Carter added.
But if Cowan was expecting the cavalry, it never came.
In the absence of national intervention, a dozen members have worked to boost Cowan through public endorsements, making calls on his behalf or joining his Zoom campaign events. That group includes Scalise, Carter and Reps. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), Austin Scott (R-Ga.), Rick Allen (R-Ga.), Greg Murphy (R-N.C.), Neal Dunn (R-Fla.), Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), James Comer (R-Ky.), Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.).
“John Cowan is a great candidate,” Carter said, but “we are very concerned about the other candidate as well. … And certainly, I don’t want someone making those kinds of comments in my conference.”
Scalise, who immediately endorsed Cowan after Greene’s previous comments — which he called “disgusting” — came to light, appeared at a virtual fundraiser for Cowan in late July. But no help has come in the form of major outside spending.
Walker, a former pastor who is retiring this year after court-ordered redistricting transformed his seat into safe Democratic territory, unsuccessfully lobbied the conservative Club for Growth to get involved, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The Club considered playing in the race and polled, but ultimately declined to endorse Cowan or spend. (It is, however, making a large investment in the primary runoff in Georgia’s 9th District for Gurtler.)
A new super PAC, dubbed A Great America PAC, formed in June, and operatives behind the group cut a TV ad casting Greene as a threat to Trump’s reelection. The group reported spending $30,000 on media production — but booked only about $17,000 on a cable buy, according to media buying sources.
Republicans in D.C. and Georgia attribute some of the lack of spending to the worsening political environment. Donors are too distracted by Trump’s flailing poll numbers and the precarious Senate majority to pay attention to a congressional primary runoff for a deep-red seat — particularly because it seems increasingly unlikely that Republicans will reclaim the majority, and McCarthy has not publicly signaled that Greene should be stopped.
Some House Republicans are angry at the Freedom Caucus for boosting Greene’s candidacy in the first place and think the group should have rescinded its endorsement. Only Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) publicly pulled his endorsement; Jordan said in a brief statement he disagreed with her comments.
If Greene wins, she could create a constant stream of headaches — and controversies — for the House GOP. Republican leaders had to strip King of his committee assignments and formally rebuke him on the House floor after he defended white supremacy and white nationalism in an interview with The New York Times last year.
Democrats are ready to pounce on a Greene victory and yoke her controversial statements to Republican House candidates across the country — particularly Handel and Rich McCormick, who is running in an open battleground seat in the Atlanta suburbs. McCormick’s wife donated to Greene when she was still running in the 6th District against Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.).
“Marjorie Taylor Greene is an extreme, far-right voice enabled and embraced by Georgia Republicans like Karen Handel and Rich McCormick and her views have no place in Congress,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Avery Jaffe said in a statement. “Georgia Republicans, and Republican candidates running across the country, will have to answer for her hateful views in their own campaigns.”
And Greene is already signaling that she has no interest in playing nice with her potential future colleagues, doubling down on some of her most controversial remarks and lashing out at Scalise and Cheney in her recent interview with a local news station.
“Steve Scalise, I was very surprised by, especially since he’s been called a racist and things like that in the past,” Greene said, an apparent reference to the Louisiana Republican’s 2002 speech to a white supremacist group. “Liz Cheney, I’ve never met or talked to her. I think that was unfortunate that they were pressured, probably pressured so to speak, maybe by people in the media, to make statements about me and they just hadn’t learned about me yet.”