National Republicans long saw Majorie Taylor Greene, a first-term member of Congress from northwest Georgia, as a potential source of trouble. Few probably thought it would get this bad. Ever since Greene — who has expressed support for the QAnon conspiracy theory — won her primary last August in Georgia’s deep-red 14th congressional district, she has become a perpetual headache for the GOP. She championed former president Donald Trump’s stolen-election claims, which may have deterred Georgia Republicans from voting in the critical Senate runoffs earlier this month, helping Democrats retake control of the chamber. More recently, a seemingly never-ending drip of internet videos and Facebook posts has emerged showing, among other things, Greene harassing a mass-shooting survivor and claiming space lasers controlled by Jews started wildfires in California. This has led to Greene, whom Trump has called a “future Republican star,” being condemned by major Republican groups, as well as calls from House Democrats to expel her from Congress.
Intelligencer spoke to John Cowan, the neurosurgeon whom Greene bested in a primary runoff race for the Republican nomination last year, about his erstwhile opponent, the damage she’s doing to the conservative cause in his home congressional district, and why she is not the right’s AOC (New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
When did you first realize that Marjorie Taylor Greene was a slightly unusual Republican, to use a polite euphemism?
It really wasn’t until about May of last year. We had a very crowded primary field and we knew she was the best funded and had endorsements from [Ohio congressman] Jim Jordan and [former North Carolina congressman and then-White House chief of staff] Mark Meadows. So I knew she would be the one to beat. As we went through the primary, I became kind of the second one. So then everybody started beating up on me and left her alone because she was clearly going to be first in the runoff. And so, by the time we felt good about me being in the runoff, that’s when we did our oppo research on her and kind of had an idea that, whoa, she’s got an interesting past. A couple of her feet, every once in a while, aren’t in reality, you know? She said some pretty bad things in the past and then Ally Mutnick wrote her Politico article in June and I think that’s the point when national Republicans started paying attention. Particularly, the Republican Jewish Coalition endorsed me because of some clear anti-Semitic stuff that she’d said, and others started taking note.
This all happened after the the Steve King scandal. Why do you think national Republicans reacted differently to Greene?
Well, I think it became very clear the way she was very hyper-aggressive with everybody, and just in-your-face. She was just very much a bull in a china shop. That’s okay, but then when you make up your own facts — then you’ve got a real problem. I think national Republicans got onboard [against her], but they also saw that some of their colleagues had endorsed her and were not backing down from it. Maybe the thought was she’s got a crazy past, but we’ll be able to control her when she’s in Congress. She’s told us, “Look, once I win this thing, I’ll switch from campaign mode into governing mode.” But she hasn’t really.
Was it always predictable how this was going to end?
You know, it doesn’t surprise me. I had hoped that she would say, “Hey, I’ve gotten elected. These people need representation. And this is not the [World Wrestling Federation].” She was the WWF candidate. And then she goes in and does a suplex on people and they’re like, “Wait, we don’t play that way.” But she’s just continued to do it.
The narrative she started running with after the [presidential] election. It was beyond “I’m concerned about some voter irregularities” and downright “Hugo Chavez was inside these Dominion machines” and “stop the steal.” Again, this is my biggest criticism of her, and I told her this. I said, “Marjorie, you are the worst enemy for every cause that you go after because you make yourself the story and you become the object of the attack, [instead of the story being] the issue you’re supporting.” As a conservative, you just double-hit yourself because it’s hard enough to get people to agree that personal responsibility, limited government, and fend-for-yourself sometimes is the right way to go.
You mentioned the “Stop the Steal” stuff. How much of an impact do you think that had, and her advocacy of it had, in hurting turnout for the Senate runoffs in January?
Absolutely huge. I will go on record as saying I honestly think the paradox of this whole thing is that she pinned herself as the biggest Trump supporter, but she hurt Trump in Georgia and then she hurt the two Senate candidates in the runoff. The data for that is there were 75,000 less Republicans that voted in her congressional district in the runoff than did in the general. Compared to 15,000 less Democrats. That margin alone would have won it for both Loeffler and Perdue.
You think she cost Republicans the Senate?
Absolutely. If you look at all areas, we by far had [the biggest drop] in turnout of any other congressional district in the entire state. I will firmly place the blame on her and her rhetoric. It was her attorney, Lin Wood, who was spewing all this stuff. They’re in cahoots with each other. Instead of her saying, “No, your vote will count, go back out,” she was perpetuating this narrative of “can’t trust the vote. Stop the steal.” It really caused a drop in turnout. I will also tell you, in the general election, she was a horrible representative for Trump in Metro Atlanta. People saw through her. They saw the articles about her and said, “Well, if this is the kind of Republican we’re going to have in Georgia, maybe we shouldn’t vote for Trump again.” You see that there were probably 100,000 Republicans in Metro Atlanta who didn’t vote for Trump. This is evidenced by the fact that every down-ballot Republican in the state house and state senate won 55 to 45. Yet, Trump lost by 12,000 votes. People like Marjorie who were controversial, outspoken, and outlandish — a moderate Republican or a moderate Democrat who actually cares about low taxes or whatever is going to turn away from Trump in that regard. Her style did not help the Republican Party in the state of Georgia.
How much damage do you think it does, moving forward, that you have a lot of these more moderate voters who may have been Republicans in the past who are now moving away?
I think she is an example. The problem is whether she goes out and does anything else to provoke this, she is now the target and the fodder for the media and for the Democrats to say, “Guys, this is why — we may have our problems. We have our AOC. It can go a little crazy. We’ve got our Elizabeth Warrens who go crazy or Bernie Sanders. But, at least we don’t have her.”
We used to joke that the MTG is the AOC of the GOP. That was kind of our joke. But the problem is: People like AOC. At least people regard her as being grounded in reality — it’s just she subscribes to the wrong political philosophy. But when you’ve got Marjorie saying Jewish laser beams started a fire and all this other crazy stuff — it’s like eating a garlic cupcake. Oh, it looks great. It’s got a little chocolate in it, but the thing’s full of garlic. It’s unpalatable.
How does it make you feel, as someone who is a strong conservative, that because she won and you didn’t, all this damage is happening to the issues you believe in?
She’s just a bad ambassador for the conservative cause and the conservative movement. Now, that said, I do think she’s got a passion and an energy that is admirable and it does move people. The problem is it’s very superficial. So the problem is that when it comes to governing and when it comes to actually getting stuff done, she falls apart. I think that’s what we’re seeing. She’s great at a rally. She was great at getting 40,000 people to come out and vote for her. Congratulations, she did that. But, you ask her a secondary question or you get down to anything beyond an eighth-grade level and she falls apart. Even worse, you challenge her on an idea and she snowflakes out and suddenly becomes the victim and it makes us look even worse. So, that’s the problem. She’s continued that. It doesn’t seem that she surrounded herself with people who can rein her in and who are going to give her any kind of policy jobs to help our district out.
You mentioned her crazy past, are there more shoes that you think are going to drop? Is there more coming?
I’ve been told that there are eight hours of videos on her. I certainly have not watched eight hours of video on her. What I’ve seen is absolutely crazy. I’m sure there’s going to be other stuff that comes out about her crazy comments in the past.
I mean, someone needs to do a timeline, because after about 2010, she really did kind of start going off the deep end it seems: She goes off her company roles as an executive at her dad’s company. She gets into CrossFit. There’s rumors of numerous affairs. She starts hanging out with these kinds of unusual groups. That’s when she’s doing all her social-media videos. She’s trying to do podcasts, etcetera, etcetera. Then, the next thing you know, she’s running for Congress. Seems to put together a well-funded D.C. team that has their act together, that runs a great soup-to-nuts campaign. They hit radio media. They’re hitting on all cylinders, but they don’t even bother to scrub her social-media account. It’s almost like she’s like, “Yep, that’s who I am and I’m doubling down on it.”
Had you ever encountered her before the campaign?
She doesn’t live here. That’s the other thing. We really went after her for just being kind of a carpetbagger. She’s a lady who’s got her dad’s money. She couldn’t win in Alpharetta so she comes up to our area to win. That was kind of our strategy. In retrospect, we probably should have been harsher and more negative regarding some of this outrageous stuff. I think, myself as a political novice, I just was like, “Do we even need to go there and explain this? Or, is just a couple of news articles that show how ridiculous it is going to be enough? Or, are [Jim] Jordan and [Mark] Meadows, when they read this stuff, are they going to just drop her? [And] just sort of say, “Cowan’s pretty conservative. We’re just going to endorse him.”
Northwest Georgia really is very conservative, the 14th district is one of the most Republican districts in the country — going back to Larry McDonald in the 1970s. Isn’t is possible Greene represents what voters there really want?
No, she represented a … If you did the Venn diagram between her and Trump, it would overlap, right? It’d be a single circle. And then she had the endorsement of two … I would say besides Doug Collins, Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan would be the two most well-known congresspeople in our district. They were all just off of the impeachment of Trump, and Meadows was his chief of staff. So these are people who are regularly on conservative media outlets and were household names. And so, literally, for the first four months of her campaign, she was just like: “My name’s Marjorie. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows have endorsed me. Go Trump.” That’s her stump speech. It was effective. That was kind of enough said. And honestly, if I ever said anything against her, [the response] was like, “Oh, well, you’re talking bad about Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, who we admire. And by the way, you’re talking about Trump.” It’s like, “No, I’m talking bad about Marjorie Greene. I can work with these other guys. I’m just as conservative as they are. I might have a different approach than they do, but I’m going to protect your Second Amendment rights and I believe in religious freedom and whatnot.”
Those two put the stamp on her and that was enough?
It was very powerful, very powerful.
Did that end up being frustrating because of the fact that this may not have felt like you were being judged on your merits as candidates?
This is frustrating because you feel like someone’s tipping the scale. That said, would I have taken their endorsements? Absolutely. That’s part of the game. It was getting frustrating. When these other articles broke that really showed her for her conspiratorial past and the fact that this person — she has a great five-minute speech but that’s it. And then, by the way, when she gets challenged she becomes really nasty and inappropriate. Like, she just can’t handle the heat and she’s not going to have an independent thought. That’s a problem. Guys, don’t you want to put problem-solvers up there and not just sound bites? That’s a little frustrating for me, sort of hoping that they do want the best and brightest, or people who have a passion for ideas. Certainly, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a health-care crisis, maybe another doctor up there will be good?
Did you get the sense that Meadows and Jordan were actually worried about any of that?
Well, I don’t know what their relationship was, but I know they were very committed and I know that they sort of said she’s our Trump in heels and it really helped her. Their endorsement was I think one of the biggest reasons she won. It’s because she was seen as Trump’s person and the person that would defend Trump the most. And that was very important to people in our district. And me, I was a Trump supporter and said “I’ll defend Trump,” but I did make it clear I’m not going to kiss his butt. I did say, “I’m my own guy. I’m a conservative. I don’t like the way he tweets sometimes and I’m going to wear a mask.” That put me at odds with people.
How comfortable are you right now that northwest Georgia is going to have a member of Congress who’s going to be diligent on constituent service over the next two years?
I don’t know. I haven’t tried to interact with her office, so I’m not sure. I would say I think it seems like she spends more time on Twitter and yelling at a camera, so I hope she’s able to take care of the people of northwest Georgia.
I do know … I hear rumblings from around that people are calling various offices saying, “We’re not going to invest in northwest Georgia because of her.” That’s going to be a problem if that actually pans out. Carpet is king here. Are they going to suffer from that? I don’t know. We definitely need new industry in our area. Are we going to be boycotted or have a reason for people to choose another place? Probably. I think we will suffer, just like [Queens] suffered under AOC with losing Amazon. I think it happens on both sides. So those are the downstream consequences of getting someone who’s controversial. But, more importantly, I just don’t think she has anything to offer the conservative movement as far as really winning hearts and minds on why we need to get back to the constitutional principles of this country. I think, like I said earlier, she’s the worst enemy for most causes that she supposedly supports.
What do you think of the argument that they should take away her committees or even kick her out of Congress?
I think the seats of elected officials should always be more fragile than our democracy. At any time when someone’s behavior becomes unbecoming, dangerous, or not in the best interest of our country, that’s a privilege that can be taken away and it’s not anti-democratic. It’s not censorship. It’s a privilege. So, if the leaders up there feel like that’s what they need to do, then they need to do it. I’m hopeful that if nothing more happens, that in two years that the voters will … Either of two things are going to happen: She’s going to completely soften and intellectually get her head around the Constitution, or she is just going to continue to implode and people are just going to be demanding to vote her out. I just hope we suffer as little collateral damage in that time as we can.
Are you worried that the stuff she’s done might make her more popular with voters?
I think it makes her more of a national figure. I honestly don’t think it’s going to make her more popular with voters in our district. I think there will be a certain type of person [in] every district in the country who will be attracted to her. But, as far as her growing her marketshare in northwest Georgia, I actually don’t think she’ll do that. I think she will have a base here similar to bases that are in other congressional districts. But, I think the majority of people in northwest Georgia are just not into conspiracy theories and QAnon. I mean, there is a presence of it, but at the end of the day people won’t get governance. They want economic growth and I just don’t think she’s going to be able to deliver on that.
Are you also worried about other political consequences of Greene’s rhetoric, like helping Stacey Abrams win the Georgia governor’s race in two years?
Oh, absolutely. I think she’s a danger to the state Republican Party. She’s been vocal against the governor [Brian Kemp], even said that he needs to be primaried. I think [Kemp has] done a great job, as good as anybody could have done, in the situation that we’re in. And we’ve got [newly elected Democratic senator Raphael] Warnock up for reelection in two years as well. I think there’s an opportunity for a strong Republican candidate to make a case that while he has broken some barriers and that’s laudable, that he’s not the right person to represent the state of Georgia, just ideologically. But if you continue to have Marjorie Greene spouting off ridiculousness and making a fool of herself, I just don’t think you’re going to convince those people on the fence in Metro Atlanta that the Republican Party has anything to offer.
How are you left feeling about all this? Is it still frustrating or disappointing for you that you lost to Greene, or are you at peace with it?
Look, I’ve got a great job. I’m a practicing neurosurgeon. I take care of patients. I love my job. I see my family every day. Tops for me [regarding running for Congress] was going to be mission service. I was not doing this for career advancement. So at the end of the day people said, “Look, this is the kind of grenade-thrower we want.” I just honestly could say, “Well, I’m not that kind of person.” [They] got a choice and they chose otherwise. I think it’s a mistake, but I respect their decision. You’re not going to hear me say, “Stop the steal.” I respect their decision. I think longterm, it’s a mistake. I think we’ve seen it already in the fact that Trump lost in Georgia and our two senators lost. I’m afraid if people continue to double down on her, we’re going to continue to lose ground in Georgia until we bring Republicans more like myself back into the fray who are willing to go toe-to-toe, but in a way that’s respectful, meaningful, and can actually convince people who disagree with you, not drive them further away.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.