For more than a decade, Republican congressional leaders awkwardly attempted to distance themselves from Steve King, the nine-term congressman from Iowa who associated himself with several high-profile white nationalists, seemingly compared Mexican immigrants to “dirt,” and insinuated that non-Western civilizations haven’t made any significant “contributions” to society. After years of condemnations and sidestepping, the GOP finally cut bait in 2020, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to King’s primary challenger, Randy Feenstra, who unseated the 18-year incumbent on June 2. The party breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Seventy days later, the GOP nominated someone who, according to one top House Republican aide, is ten times worse than King—“at a minimum.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene—owner of a construction company in Alpharetta, Georgia—defeated Dr. John Cowan in the Republican primary runoff for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District on Tuesday, 57 percent to 43 percent. And in a district Donald Trump won by 53 points in 2016, Greene is well on her way to Congress.
As was the case with King, Republican elected officials will find themselves answering for Greene with regularity. She ascribes to the QAnon conspiracy theory the FBI classifies as a domestic terrorist threat, saying in a video that Q is a “patriot” who is “worth listening to.” She referred to the 2018 midterm elections as “an Islamic invasion of our government,” and has repeatedly downplayed the existence of racism and played up white identity politics. “Guess what? Slavery is over,” she said in one video. “The most mistreated group of people in the United States today are white males.”
On Thursday, Media Matters For America resurfaced a video from 2018 showing Greene—whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment—espousing conspiracy theories related to the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and the 9/11 attacks. In the video, recorded at the American Priority Conference, Greene alleged the Obama administration used MS-13 gang members as “henchmen” to do their “dirty work,” including killing Seth Rich. (The police concluded Rich’s murder was the result of a botched robbery; Rich’s family has asked the public to “cease using Seth as a political football in predetermined partisan narratives.”) In the same video, Greene referenced the “so-called plane that crashed into the Pentagon” on September 11, 2001, claiming it’s “odd” that “there’s never any evidence shown for a plane in the Pentagon.” (Greene did not apologize for the remarks, but did admit Thursday on Twitter that she “now know[s] that is not correct.”)
When Greene’s comments about the midterms being an “Islamic invasion” and Black Lives Matter activists being “idiots” first surfaced in mid-June, an aide for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called them “appalling” and said McCarthy “has no tolerance for them.” Yesterday—two days after Greene’s primary victory and hours after her 9/11 truther video was unearthed—a McCarthy spokesperson told The Dispatch the Minority Leader “look[s] forward” to Greene’s victory in November.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)—which works to elect Republicans to the House—is not likely to spend any money on Greene’s behalf, but not for the reasons one might assume. “There is a greater chance of DCCC spending in Ilhan Omar’s district than there is of the NRCC spending in this seat,” a source close to the NRCC told The Dispatch, referencing the Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota whose comments have twice led the House to formally condemn anti-Semitism and bigotry. “Why the hell would the NRCC spend a dime in a seat Republicans typically win by nearly 30 points?”
NRCC spokesman Chris Pack told reporters back in June the group’s chairman, Rep. Tom Emmer, was “personally disgusted” by Greene’s rhetoric and that he “condemns it in the strongest possible terms.” A spokesman for House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney said at the time that Cheney “obviously … opposes [Greene’s] offensive and bigoted comments,” and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise argued Greene’s remarks “don’t reflect the values of equality and decency that make our country great.” But Scalise did something neither McCarthy nor Cheney could muster: Endorse Dr. John Cowan, Greene’s opponent.
A source close to Cowan’s campaign—who requested anonymity out of a fear QAnon adherents might “show up at [their] house”—confirmed to The Dispatch on Thursday that Scalise helped the campaign fundraise over the summer, as did Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter. “John Cowan is a great candidate,” Carter told Politico days before the runoff, adding that he was “very concerned” about Greene. “I don’t want someone making those kinds of comments in my conference.”
But McCarthy remained neutral in the race—which was ultimately decided by fewer than 11,000 votes—keeping many large-dollar donors and outside groups on the sidelines. “Look, I do believe that it would’ve been very helpful if Leader McCarthy would have come through,” the Cowan campaign source said with a sigh. “Until the leadership of the party truly is willing to stand up and fight back, these QAnon people are going to continue to be more and more prevalent.”
An internal Facebook investigation leaked to NBC News earlier this week found millions of previously unknown members and followers of QAnon groups and pages hosted on the platform, suggesting the conspiracy theory—which began in 2017 when an anonymous 4Chan user, “Q,” began detailing a “deep state” plot against President Trump—is far more widespread than many realized.
The Cowan campaign source estimated around a quarter of the 76,000 voters that turned out for the runoff in northwestern Georgia were QAnon-adjacent, and insinuated Republican leadership is afraid of alienating this growing base of support. “Everybody is scared of this QAnon developing … wing within the party,” the source said. And it goes a lot deeper than Trump.
The first thing listed on Cowan’s website—before being pro life and pro gun—is that he is pro Trump. But it wasn’t enough. “There’s still a section of this party that demands that candidates go a step further. That you not only be pro Trump, but you have to be pro … frankly, just conspiracy theories,” the source close to Cowan’s campaign said. “The most consistent thing we heard [about why voters were supporting Greene over Cowan] was that, ‘Well, she’s gonna go and she’s gonna fight, she’s gonna fight, she’s gonna fight.’ When you prodded a little bit deeper and asked, ‘Well what does that fight look like?’ They couldn’t tell you, but they just know she’s going to fight.”
“I think it should worry all of us,” the source added. “The fact that [Greene] is about to end up in Congress should hopefully be a wake up call for everybody, because she’s no better than Steve King. And you know how long it took to get him out of Congress.”
Precisely one Republican congressman—Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—spoke up the day after Greene’s election, calling QAnon a “fabrication” and saying there is “no place in Congress for these conspiracies.” Trump campaign aide Matt Wolking seemingly interpreted that straightforward denunciation as an attack on the president—perhaps because Trump himself applauded Greene as a “future Republican Star” and “real WINNER” earlier that morning. So Wolking criticized Kinzinger for not condemning “conspiracy theories pushed by Democrats.”
Kinzinger’s experience on Wednesday may have cowed his colleagues into silence. The Dispatch reached out to 30 different GOP congressional offices across the party’s ideological spectrum on Thursday; McCarthy’s was the only we heard back from.
But privately, Republicans are worried. “Greene could have a devastating impact on the Republican party at-large,” a top House GOP aide texted The Dispatch. “It’s one thing to have fringe members who represent very ideological districts. It’s quite another to have a member who is an avowed conspiracy theorist and traffics in hateful rhetoric that offends the vast majority of Americans. Embracing someone like that will unquestionably turn off the voters who determine congressional majorities.”
It’s almost assuredly too late for Republican leadership to stop Greene from reaching Congress, especially with President Trump onboard with her candidacy. But McCarthy does have one tool at his disposal if she wins: He can withhold committee assignments, limiting her involvement in the legislative process.
Steve King sees a double standard. McCarthy stripped the Iowa congressman of his committee assignments in early 2019 after the New York Times quoted King defending white supremacism. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” King said. (He maintains to this day that he was “misquoted,” later condemning “anyone that supports this evil and bigoted ideology.”)
“That language has no place in America,” McCarthy said at the time. “That is not the America I know, and it is most definitely not the party of Lincoln.”
The Republican Steering Committee voted unanimously that week to remove King from the Judiciary, Agriculture, and Small Business Committees. It cost him his career; King’s primary challenger criticized him not for his history of offensive comments, but for his ineffectiveness and inability to deliver for his constituents.
In a phone call on Thursday—which he made clear he was recording to guard against any misquoting—King lambasted McCarthy for his apparent about-face on offensive remarks. “The only principle I can identify that resides within McCarthy is the principle to expand his own power,” he said. “He’s perhaps thinking that Republicans could win the majority back, and he’ll need [Greene’s] vote for Speaker.”
Republicans are highly unlikely to reclaim the House in November given current polling trends, but McCarthy will need much more than Greene’s vote if he wants to retain his job as minority leader come 2021. McCarthy currently has the support of the House Freedom Caucus—a group of about 40 of the Republican conference’s most pro-Trump members—and this support helps explain his stance on Greene. Several of the HFC’s most prominent members—Reps. Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, and Andy Biggs—endorsed Greene in her primary, and none responded to questions from The Dispatch yesterday as to whether her comments gave them pause.
King, who said the QAnon theory “didn’t draw that much of [his] interest,” predicted McCarthy will use committee assignments to try to reign Greene in. “He’ll hang the sin that he committed against me out in front of her like the sword of Damocles,” he said, noting that Republican leadership needs to respect Greene. “They want everybody to go to the milquetoast middle where they are. … There has to be some outliers out there even, that will pull the political center in the right direction.”
After the McCarthy spokesman passed along his initial statement regarding Greene, The Dispatch followed up to ask if McCarthy regretted stripping King of his committee assignments due to the precedent it set, or if the minority leader did not believe Greene’s comments and beliefs rise to the level of King’s. We did not receive a response.
Update, August 14, 2020: This story has been updated to include the fact that Media Matters for America first uncovered Marjorie Taylor Greene’s 9/11 and Seth Rich conspiracy comments.
Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.