Before Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene set off a metal detector outside the House chamber, lost her committee assignments, or hung a transphobic sign in the halls of the Capitol complex, she was just a candidate in a Republican primary in Georgia.
Eight others were running to be the Republican nominee in the state’s 14th Congressional District, one of the reddest in Georgia. During the primary, she posted an anti-Semitic tweet that Democratic megadonor George Soros, who is Jewish, was an “enemy of the people,” smirked through interviews about her Islamophobic social media posts, and used an AR-15 to obliterate a sign that read “socialism.” She won a runoff primary with 57 percent of the vote.
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Ever since, she has been a source of controversy. Some of Greene’s most egregious social media posts, in which she endorsed QAnon, “liked” posts calling for the execution of prominent Democrats and questioned whether the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon ever happened, have pushed even some Republicans to denounce her. But those comments were public while she was running in that primary. So, why weren’t they an issue then? Or, to put a finer point on it, how did Greene get elected in the first place?
It wasn’t something special about her district. Instead, she got elected because of all the things that are special about American politics: the influence of money, polarization and kingmakers. And Greene wasn’t special in being able to harness those forces — the same could be done in many places around the country. A Marjorie Taylor Greene could be coming to a congressional district near you.
Greene didn’t plan to represent Georgia’s 14th District; she was busy trying to represent its 6th. Composed mostly of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, including Greene’s home in northern Fulton County, and offering a shot at unseating a Democrat, the 6th was the obvious choice for Greene. She hired a D.C. consulting firm, invested in a slick website and loaned herself $500,000 to get the campaign rolling.
But the 6th was shaping up to be a competitive race, both in the primary and the general. The incumbent, Democrat Lucy McBath, was running unopposed in her primary, allowing her to focus her time and money on the general (McBath ultimately won reelection). Meanwhile, the GOP race had attracted five other candidates, including Karen Handel, who previously held the seat before McBath beat her in 2018. Handel enjoyed the backing of prominent Republicans like then-Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson and Gov. Brian Kemp. It was going to be a tough fight for Greene, a far-right political newcomer who had never sought elected office in her life.
Then, on Dec. 5, 2019, a new door opened: Republican Rep. Tom Graves unexpectedly announced he would not seek reelection in Georgia’s 14th District, a rural area in the northwest corner of the state. Eight days later, Greene — encouraged, she said, by House Freedom Caucus members such as Reps. Jim Jordan and Andy Biggs — moved her campaign to the 14th and never looked back, as there’s no constitutional requirement that representatives must live within the borders of their districts — just in the state. She was the first (and for three weeks, the only) candidate in the Republican primary. By the time other candidates had trickled in over the coming months, they said Greene was the candidate to beat.
“She was always going to be ‘the frontrunner,’ she had been running for almost a year,” said Matthew Laughridge, a local business owner who also ran in the 14th District’s Republican primary.
Entering an empty race with a running start was helpful, and so was her bank account. Pouring cash into a campaign never guarantees a win — just ask Mike Bloomberg. But when you outraise your opponents and add in a heavy dollop of self-funding to outspend your main competition by nearly double, it can give you an edge, as it did with Greene. Studies show that raising the most money is a far better predictor of winning a contested primary than “candidate quality” metrics, such as having previously held elected office. And we can see how that played out in 2020 Republican primaries that looked at least somewhat like Greene’s. In 49 seats that ranged from very red to potentially competitive and where at least four candidates ran with no GOP incumbent,1 about two-thirds of the winning nominees had the most financial support, including Greene.
By the end of the race, Greene’s campaign had pulled in a little over $3 million and spent $2.7 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Nearly a third of that money came from her — about $950,000 in total — putting her on par with some of the top congressional self-funders in the country. Greene and her husband purchased her parents’ commercial construction business in 2002, which “has since managed a quarter of a billion dollars of construction projects,” according to Greene’s congressional website.
But it wasn’t just her own money that fueled her campaign. She also collected $1.6 million from individual contributions — more than any of her opponents collected in total. Her closest competitor, Dr. John Cowan, a local neurosurgeon who faced Greene in a runoff, raised just under $1.5 million and spent the bulk of it. The remaining seven candidates in the primary raised roughly half of Greene’s coffers — $1.8 million — combined.
Greene used that money to flood the district with ads, according to Seth Weathers, an Atlanta-area consultant who was Trump’s statewide director for Georgia in 2016. “Her message was ‘Stop socialism! Save America!’ and the fact that I can even say that to you is proof of the amount of messaging ad dollars that she spent on it,” said Weathers. “I am way outside of that district, but to get the largest radio market that does reach into that district, she bought up the Atlanta market for our largest talk-radio channel, so I heard it constantly.”
By March, Greene was leading the pack, polling at more than 35 percent, according to the internal polls of one of her opponents, Clayton Fuller. And come the primary vote, Greene finished far ahead of the field with 40 percent of the vote, which left her with relatively few new votes to earn in the ensuing runoff nine weeks later. Cowan, who finished a distant second in the primary with 21 percent, attracted only a little outside support in his efforts to overtake Greene, and she comfortably defeated him in the runoff.
In a district where 75 percent of voters sided with Trump in 2016, the general election was always going to be a formality. Marjorie Taylor Greene was headed to Congress.
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Money is helpful in a campaign, but having the right politics is even better. And the 14th District was a far better home for Greene’s politics than the 6th. Former President Trump carried the seat by 48 points in the 2020 general election, according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections, and the district is firmly in Appalachia, a region that has been especially pro-Trump ever since he entered the political fray. Tellingly, Trump garnered 45 percent of the vote in the 14th District back in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, making it his second-best district in all of Georgia — a state he won by 15 points during the competitive period of the GOP nomination contest.
At a time when loyalty to Trump is the most important policy issue to many GOP voters, Greene did all she could to yoke herself to him. From Day One of her campaign, she styled herself as “the” Trump candidate, emphasizing her political-outsider status and success as a business owner. She pledged to go to Washington to be an “ally” of Trump. She rented a bus branded with his image and name (unaffiliated with the official Trump campaign) and toured it around the district’s small towns and cities to drum up support and align herself with the president. She used Trump’s name and image in her campaign ads and even brought a cardboard cutout of him to some campaign events.
While all the primary candidates were pro-Trump, Greene was the most vocal about it.
“I’m sure people could smell on me that while I did support Trump, I was not a sycophant. I was not going to worship him. She worships him,” Cowan said. “I wasn’t going to just carry a cardboard cutout with me.”
Greene’s “Save America” message also likely appealed to white evangelical Christians, who lean overwhelmingly toward the GOP and made up 36 percent of the 14th District’s population in 2010, according to Daily Kos Elections analysis of data from the 2010 U.S. Religion Census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. As the chart below illustrates, Georgia’s 14th District ranks as both one of the most evangelical Christian and Republican districts in the country. Because many of these voters feel under assault in the face of the country’s rapid diversification and declining adherence to Christianity, it made for particularly fertile ground for a candidate like Greene.
That said, it’s not as though Georgia’s 14th District is such an outlier that it elected a candidate that no other district would. For instance, there are 16 other congressional districts where at least 70 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, at least 30 percent identified as evangelical Christian in 2010, and voters sided with Trump in the competitive portion of the 2016 GOP nomination contest.2 Those districts, almost all of which are located in the South, are listed in the table below.
|Share of population is …||Trump electoral margin in …|
|District||Current Party||Non-Hispanic white||Evangelical Christian||2016 primary||2020 general|
While none of those districts have a Greene-like figure representing them now,3 they easily could going forward. After all, some of the 16 incumbents in these seats already have some things in common with Greene: 14 of them joined Greene in voting to reject at least one state’s election results during Congress’s certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6, which was interrupted by the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol. Although around two-thirds of GOP House members also voted to reject, nearly 90 percent of the members in these seats voted that way.
Still, these 16 districts aren’t the only places that would elect a Republican as extreme as Greene. After all, freshman Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, who has drawn comparisons to Greene, hails from a Colorado district that leans only somewhat toward the GOP (Trump carried it by 5.5 points in November) and has a small share of evangelical Christians (11 percent of the population in 2010). In other words, districts that don’t even look that much like Greene’s could still have Republican electorates willing to back far-right candidates. And that speaks to the fact that the confrontational style employed by Trump and embraced by Greene and Boebert has broad appeal among Republicans all over the country, who have become more extreme and less inclined to support political compromise.
It can be easy to write off someone like Greene as an anomaly. But once upon a time, it was easy to write off Trump as one, too. The conditions are ripe across the country for extreme candidates to get elected. And Greene helped write the playbook.