By Simone Pathe, CNN
Jennifer Strahan walked up and down the main street of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s hometown with a mission — to make sure as many potential voters as possible know who she is before Tuesday’s Republican primary.
A first-time candidate and the most formidable of Greene’s five primary opponents, Strahan has the backing of the Republican Jewish Coalition PAC and the PACs of some major local and national businesses, including UPS and International Paper. VIEW PAC — the leading organization dedicated to recruiting and electing Republican women to Congress — is opposing an incumbent for the first time by endorsing Strahan against Greene.
The controversial Greene is often mentioned in the same breath as other Donald Trump acolytes in the US House, such as North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who lost his primary earlier this week. But unlike in the Tar Heel state, where Republicans — including the state’s junior GOP senator — mobilized against Cawthorn, Greene hasn’t encountered the same level of organized opposition — or spending — against her.
VIEW PAC’s independent expenditure arm has been mostly alone in making small investments in mail and digital advertising. Some Republicans in Congress have been helpful to Strahan behind the scenes, but few will go public.
And even many of the GOP voters whom CNN met in the 14th Congressional District who had qualms about Greene — “I like her politics but not her demeanor” was a frequent refrain — hadn’t heard of the Republicans running against her for this northwest Georgia seat.
“As long as there’s a Republican in that spot, I’m OK,” said Lorrie Heiken, a 54-year-old self-described “MAGA” supporter who does not believe President Joe Biden won the 2020 election but also thinks the QAnon conspiracy theory — and Greene’s promotion of it — goes too far.
Greene moved to Rome last cycle to run for the 14th District when it became open, abandoning an earlier bid for a suburban Atlanta seat. Her district, which she won with 75% of the vote in 2020 after the Democrat dropped out, remains overwhelmingly Republican, albeit slightly less so after redistricting so it’s unclear how that will affect the primary electorate. Greene’s campaign signs are more easily spotted on the outskirts of Rome, where eclectic restaurants and shops quickly give way to Dollar Generals and open land. But even in this bustling downtown, her influence could be felt.
One business owner, who had trepidatiously put a Strahan sign in her shop window, said Strahan would be more effective in Washington but requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation — specifically the fear of receiving a threatening voicemail from the congresswoman.
“My stomach is churning just talking to you,” the shop owner said.
Greene’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.
‘Joe Biden is our President’
The owner of a health care consulting company, Strahan often introduces herself to voters as the mom of a son, two dogs and a tortoise. At a recent tele-town hall, she told participants the district needs someone who’s not a “social media celebrity,” a not-so-subtle jab at the congresswoman.
Strahan’s most dedicated supporters crave that contrast. “Our current representative is everything the left wanted Trump to be in that she’s just ineffective and loud,” said 39-year-old Josh Brown of Rockmart, who recognized Strahan at a local coffee shop and stopped her to say hello. He’s enthusiastic about her candidacy, calling her “mature and resolved.”
House GOP leadership condemned Greene for speaking at a White nationalist conference in February. It wasn’t too long ago that House Republicans voted to kick then-Rep. Steve King of Iowa off his committees in Congress after he made comments that were sympathetic to White supremacists. Soon after, King was defeated in a 2020 primary. But party leadership has largely tolerated Greene, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently traveling to the US-Mexico border with her — a sign of just how closely House Republicans have embraced Trump’s most loyal followers in their conference ahead of what could be another Trump White House bid in 2024.
The Democratic majority in the House, along with 11 Republicans, voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments last year after her past statements indicating support for political violence as well as anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic comments were unearthed. While Strahan says she disagrees with that decision to punish Greene, she’s used the outcome to try to paint the congresswoman as an ineffective legislator. It’s a position that underscores the difficult balancing act she’s trying to strike between not alienating Republicans who may have voted for Greene last cycle and dislike decisions coming from Washington, while still calling for new representation in the district.
As for House Republican leadership, Strahan said she’s not surprised they haven’t gotten involved in her race against the incumbent, despite the fact that McCarthy is backing a primary challenger to another sitting incumbent, Rep. Liz Cheney, in Wyoming.
CNN has reached out to McCarthy’s political team.
For the leadership of VIEW PAC, taking Greene on is about more than just the 14th District — it’s also about the reputation of other Republican women in the House.
“It’s unfortunate that in 2020, we elected some really tremendous Republican women and the only one people talk about is the only one who has no business being in Congress,” the group’s executive director, Julie Conway, told CNN.
Strahan is critical of many of Greene’s controversial comments, including about Russia and Ukraine, saying she recognizes that “Russia is the aggressor.” But when it comes to conservative policy, Strahan said there’s a lot of “overlap” with their positions.
Less so when it comes to the last presidential election, though. “Joe Biden is our president,” Strahan said, not directly answering a question about whether she would have voted to certify the 2020 results. Advocacy groups had recently tried unsuccessfully to get Greene disqualified from the ballot for her alleged role in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.
Strahan praised Trump’s policies — particularly the 2017 tax law — but she wouldn’t commit to supporting him for the Republican nomination in 2024. “If he’s our nominee, I would support him,” she said twice when asked whether she’d back him in a primary.
Her strongest public support among elected leaders in Washington has come from Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who was one of seven Republican senators, including outspoken Trump critic Mitt Romney of Utah, to vote to convict the former President at his impeachment trial after January 6.
At a Capitol Hill fundraiser for Strahan last month, Cassidy framed the race as a battle for the future of the GOP — and the country. Romney’s leadership PAC has also donated to Strahan’s campaign.
A strong base for Greene
Trump held one of his final rallies of 2020 in Rome — a testament to his popularity in this part of the state.
And while Greene’s outspokenness seems to have turned some voters off, for her supporters, it’s exactly what they like about her and Trump — reflecting a burgeoning divide over whether elected officials should work within traditional norms or blow them up.
“They hate her so I like,” 66-year-old Steve Walker said of Greene as he walked out of the local Crossfit gym after his Friday morning workout and headed for his pickup truck.
Who are “they”? “People in charge up there,” Walker said. He’d already voted early for the congresswoman, a former Crossfit gym owner who’s been known to frequent this location.
“I love her because she’s bold,” said 55-year-old Audrey Burch, who was playing with her grandson in a fountain downtown. “Most everything she has said I agree with.”
And Stephanie Howard, a 56-year-old from nearby Chattooga County, said she’d heard some controversial things Greene had said but it didn’t bother her.
“I like that she voices her opinion,” Howard said as she loaded groceries into her SUV at an Ingles supermarket in Summerville, about 30 miles northwest of Rome.
Looking for an alternative
But from behind the counter at Dogwood Books, Kenneth Studdard can see across Broad Street to the popular Harvest Moon Cafe, where Greene sometimes lunches when she’s back in Rome.
A 56-year-old Republican, Studdard has opposed Greene, who he said “makes everything a circus,” since before the 2020 election, when he backed local neurosurgeon John Cowan in the GOP primary.
Sporting an orange “I’m a Georgia voter” sticker, Studdard said he had cast his ballot earlier that day for Strahan, even if he recognizes how hard it will be to unseat an incumbent.
“If you’re Strahan, you’re trying to do two things: Hold her under 50 (percent) and come in second,” said longtime Georgia Republican strategist Chip Lake, referring to the state’s runoff rule, which requires surpassing 50% of the vote to win the primary outright.
On the Democratic side, cowboy hat-wearing Army veteran Marcus Flowers has raised more than $8 million — an enviable sum for a Republican like Strahan when the primary is the best chance at unseating Greene.
“If they’d given Strahan all the money Flowers has, this would be a completely different conversation,” Lake said. (Strahan raised $392,000 through May 4, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, compared with $11.9 million for Greene.)
Among a trio of polo-clad businessmen strolling down Broad Street during lunchtime, two had voted for Strahan in the GOP primary the day before, while one had voted in the Democratic primary.
Bob Finnell, the Democratic primary voter, was an aide to Republican Sen. Mack Mattingly, who served a single term in the 1980s. Finnell isn’t pleased with the direction of the GOP — or the district. He suggested, only half-jokingly, that the only way to beat Greene would be for a candidate to film a TV ad of themselves aggressively pretending to stop immigrants from crossing state lines.
Neither Republican voter thought Greene would lose the primary. “Slim to none” was how 34-year-old Collin Doss described Strahan’s chances.
His father, David Doss, said he had thought the 2020 primary runoff between Greene and Cowan wouldn’t be close.
“I was right,” he said, but he got the winner wrong: It was Greene who ended up defeating Cowan by 14 points.
Still, he thinks — or hopes — this year’s race against Strahan will be closer.
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