David Jackson and Evan Lasseter | USA TODAY
ROME, Ga. – To many of her constituents, Marjorie Taylor Greene got to Congress because she embodies a variety of conservative values: anti-tax, anti-bureaucracy, pro-religion, pro-guns, pro-Donald Trump.
Her violent rhetoric and conspiracy theories?
Those aren’t as popular with Republican conservatives in Georgia – but probably aren’t a deal-breaker, either.
“I know her – I think she’s representing us very well,” said Debbie Scoggins, 54, a co-owner of Giggity’s sports bar in downtown Rome, the imperially named city at the heart of Georgia’s 14th Congressional District.
Sweeping the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, Scoggins said she met Greene as the latter asked for her vote. Pointing to the wide boulevard that runs past the old brick buildings of the rehabbed downtown, Scoggins said, “She’s been all up and down Broad Street, asking people what they want from her … She’s passionate; she cares about people.”
To others, Greene’s passion boils into something far more than that: dangerous, conspiracy-driven extremism, the kind of rhetoric that leads to things like the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by fervent Trump supporters.
“We just elected a bomb thrower, and she is not going to back down,” said John Cowan, a Rome-based neurosurgeon who lost a Republican runoff to Greene last year.
Greene’s election in 2020 underscored how Trump’s political movement swept some far-right candidates into public office; her tenure so far has exposed Trump-generated divisions in the Republican Party moving forward, though local GOP members said they are unsure if they can defeat Greene in next year’s congressional elections.
Greene removed from committee: Incendiary social media posts prompt House action
Earlier this month, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House, along with 11 Republicans, voted to dismiss Greene from two congressional committees, bringing another hailstorm of bad publicity to this rural, small-town corner of northwest Georgia.
Some Republicans in Georgia, and elsewhere, said people like Greene are killing the party – it’s “a battle for sanity,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told NPR News. Greene, meanwhile, raised money off of the attacks on her and threatened to back primary opponents for Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment.
“You’ve picked a fight you can’t win. We will make sure of it,” Taylor tweeted at Kinzinger during the recent Senate impeachment trial that acquitted Trump of charges that he incited the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Republicans in northwest Georgia, some speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to alienate their neighbors, said too many of their colleagues are hurting the party by ignoring Greene’s more extreme views: Her seeming support for violence against political opponents, her apparent QAnon belief that a secret sect runs the United States, her suggestions that school shootings were staged to inspire calls for gun control.
Some voiced concern that Greene’s lack of committee membership could cost the region some federal aid. But they added it’s too early to say whether a more establishment Republican might challenge her in a party primary next year.
“I think Jan. 6 was a big, big wake-up call for the Republican Party,” Cowan said. “The issue is, how are we being represented?”
‘Around here, Trump is king.’
Amy Stone, 47, a Democrat and chief compliance officer who lives in Chickamauga, said Greene succeeded because she was seen as being like Trump, spreading false claims that politicians want to forge “socialism” and take away people’s guns.
“I feel like she did a really great job of just stirring that fear,” Stone said. “And then riding Trump coattails because around here, Trump is king.”
Local Republicans said it could take a long time to figure out how someone like Greene could win a GOP primary and get elected to Congress, even from a conservative area like northwest Georgia.
“Everyone’s scratching their head trying to figure that out,” said Hal Storey, 63, a local businessman who described himself as a political independent,
Some reasons are already clear, however: A successful businesswoman, Greene had money and a good organization. Her incendiary social media posts gave her name recognition. She managed to cast herself as the “Trumpiest” candidate in a Republican primary field full of Trump supporters.
Greene says she regrets comments: Congresswoman says she’s sorry for ‘wrong and offensive’ comments
Initially, Greene did not even plan to represent the 14th District. She prepared to run in another district, a less Republican area in the northern suburbs of Atlanta that had elected a Democrat in 2018. The district did so again in 2020.
In the meantime, Greene took advantage of an unexpected political development that allowed her to run in a more Republican district.
Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., first elected to Congress from northwest Georgia in 2010, announced in December 2019 he would not seek reelection. A businessman, Graves was a more traditional Republican who developed a reputation as a fiscal hawk.
During the 2016 Republican presidential race, Graves also criticized Trump. In a letter to constituents, he said: “Would I be comfortable if my three children acted like Trump? Certainly not.”
Nine Republicans jumped into the 2020 race for the newly open seat, but most had to create a campaign structure from scratch. Greene, moving into the 14th District from the northern Atlanta area, had a ready-made organization she had created for the other race.
“She had the car up and running, while other people were assembling the pieces,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Greene’s aggressive style, and provocative use of social media, gave her name identification and enabled her to build support from the area’s large group of Trump supporters. It all helped her accomplish step one: Finish in the top two of the primary and qualify for the runoff.
This despite criticism of a string of Facebook videos in which Greene said Muslims should not be allowed to serve in government, and that Black people have become “slaves to the Democratic Party.” Greene also ran ads showing her holding semiautomatic weapons.
In the one-on-one runoff with Cowan, Greene cast herself as a champion of Trumpism and declared her opponent as insufficiently conservative; she won with 57% of the vote.
During an online debate, Taylor hit Cowan for not having donated to Trump’s campaign – “you haven’t given a dime to President Trump” – while Cowan brought up Taylor’s extreme views.
“I’m all of the conservative and none of the embarrassment,” he said.
Greene, who spent a reported $2.2 million on the campaign, prevailed even as her views drew national attention to the congressional race featuring the “QAnon candidate.”
As in most of the country, most people don’t follow the details of politics, said residents of northwest Georgia. They did not think through the ramifications of some of Greene’s beliefs. They did not fathom QAnon, the conspiracy theory that baselessly claims that a cabal of pedophiles and Satan worshipers are secretly running the government.
Cowan noted that the primary was June 9 and the runoff was Aug. 11. Details about Greene’s background emerged gradually, he said, and people did not have enough time to absorb and fully understand the implications of some of Greene’s views.
“I don’t think there was enough time and money to adjudicate it properly,” Cowan said.
In Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, winning the Republican nomination is tantamount to winning the seat. Greene’s Democratic opponent in the general election – Kevin Van Ausdal, 35, a political newcomer who had pledged to “bring civility back to Washington” – withdrew from the race just more than a month before Election Day.
Some Greene supporters said the Democrats were just stirring up trouble for the Republicans, and still are.
“They need to get some of these old ones that’s in there out that have gone wacko,” said Raleen Carr, 64, a Greene backer who works at a coffee shop in downtown Ringgold.
Carr cited Greene’s youth and opposition to abortion – “not killing babies,” she said – as reasons for Green’s support in Georgia and her opposition in Washington. Carr said, “they are trying to get her out because of her morals and her values.”
A very Republican district
From the three rivers that originally made Rome a trade center, to the carpet industry that made Dalton a brand name, the 14th Congressional District was drawn to loop in Republican and conservative areas.
The electorate here is a distillation of the conservative evolution of the Republican Party, especially in the once solid-Democratic South. It’s a tradition that runs from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Georgia’s own Newt Gingrich and now includes the Trump movement.
In getting to Congress, Greene campaigned on the Trumpian view that the nation is in decline, threatened by “socialism” and other countries that take advantage of the United States.
The approach “appeals to people who see the world changing around them,” said Bullock, the professor. “They’re uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do about it.”
There are other factors behind Greene’s popularity, some residents said. Some supporters are simply resentful of Black or Hispanic people and never happy about civil rights laws that stretch back to the 1960s, some residents said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Others simply hate Democrats and are thrilled to see Greene’s slashing attacks on them. “I think people in northwest Georgia have applauded that,” Cowan said.
The area has historically chafed at the federal government.
There are Civil War references all over Rome, from a marker along a river noting the site of the Noble Brothers Foundry, which once made locomotives and cannons for the Confederate Army, to cannons themselves sitting atop Jackson Hill. Officials recently removed a statue of Confederate Gen. William Bedford Forrest, who after the war became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The city also honors all sorts of history, including a statue of its most historic resident: Ellen Axson Wilson, first lady of the United States during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency; she died during his first term.
Taylor might not even be the most conservative member to ever represent the area.
Rep. Larry McDonald, elected in 1974 in a district that included parts of northwest Georgia, campaigned against what he saw as a communist conspiracy to destroy the United States. In office, he voted against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, falsely claiming in a statement that the civil rights leader had been “manipulated by communists and secret communist agents.”
McDonald was also a Democrat, a throwback to the party’s “Solid South” at a time when Republicans were poorly organized in the state. He died in one of the most infamous incidents of the Cold War: aboard Korean Air Lines Flight 007 that was accidentally shot down by the Russians in 1983.
‘We don’t think what’s going on now is working’
Some northwest Georgia Republicans offered a different view of the political world. They said too many politicians are out for themselves and indifferent to the loss of manufacturing jobs and the decline of religious morality.
In downtown Dalton, where the whistles of passing freight trains are often heard, Greene supporter Susan Meals said, “we don’t think what’s going on now is working – sometimes you just need a change.”
Meals, a nurse, did not agree with some of Greene’s views: “There are a lot of people out there on both sides who have conspiracy theories I don’t agree with. Does that make them bad people? No.”
Greene would probably not be “my best friend,” said Meals, 58. “But I didn’t vote for her to be my best friend.”
Down the road in Ringgold, some houses fly the Confederate battle flag or the recently discarded Georgia state flag that includes the Stars and Bars. Another familiar sight through the district: the spires of churches, four of which line Nashville Street in downtown Ringgold.
Preston Brown, 49, a Republican who works in the area’s fairly large tourism industry, said he didn’t think it was right that Democrats made the decision to remove Greene from her congressional committees.
“That,” he said, “seems like an overreach of authority.”
‘It’s pretty crazy’
Residents said most people in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District really aren’t into politics, especially the way it’s practiced now. Some residents don’t even know who Greene is.
Others refused to talk about her. And others said they would discuss the congresswoman only on the condition that they not be named, fearful of blowback from friends and customers who ardently support Trump and Greene.
One business owner, who asked that his name not be used, said people said “we’re going to shut you down” if he came out against Trump. “It’s pretty crazy,” he said.
Greene does not represent the area in total, some residents said, particularly the African American population and a growing number of Latinos. The district is more than 80% white, according to Census figures.
Alexandros Cornejo, 41, an immigration attorney who said he doesn’t belong to either political party, said Greene is certainly not representing clients who work hard for a living. “At this point, she’s become a nuisance and a distraction – she needs to go.”
Whether that happens in next year’s election remains to be seen.
For one thing, Greene figures to be well-funded. Greene said on Jan. 29 she had raised more than $1.6 million off of negative media coverage of her. On Feb. 3, the day before the House voted to kick her off committees, Greene tweeted she had raised $175,000 in a single day, and told followers that “they are attacking me because I’m one of you.”
Storey, the businessman who grew up in Rome, said people will be “scratching their head” for years over how Greene made it to Congress. He simply doesn’t believe that most residents agree with the “divisiveness” and “meanness” displayed by Greene’s campaign.
“That doesn’t represent the community I grew up in,” he said.