There was a time when Kevin Van Ausdal had not yet been called a “loser” and “a disgrace” and hustled out of Georgia. He had not yet punched a wall, or been labeled a “communist,” or a person “who’d probably cry like a baby if you put a gun in his face.” He did not yet know who was going to be the Republican nominee for Congress in his conservative district in northwestern Georgia: the well-known local neurosurgeon, or the woman he knew vaguely as a person who had openly promoted conspiracies including something about a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
Anything still seemed possible in the spring of 2020, including the notion that he, Kevin Van Ausdal, a 35-year-old political novice who wanted to “bring civility back to Washington” might have a shot at becoming a U.S. congressman.
So one day in March, he drove his Honda to the gold-domed state capitol in Atlanta, used his IRS refund to pay the $5,220 filing fee and became the only Democrat running for a House seat in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, which Donald Trump won by 27 points in the 2016 presidential election.
He hired a local campaign manager named Vinny Olsziewski, who had handled school board races and a couple of congressionals.
He came up with a slogan — “Save the American Dream” — and posted his first campaign ad, a one-minute slide show of snapshots with voters set to colonial fife-and-drum music.
He gave one of the first public interviews he had ever given in his life, about anything, on a YouTube show called Destiny, and when the host asked, “How do you appeal to these people while still holding onto what you believe in?” Kevin answered, “It’s all about common sense and reaching across the aisle. That’s what politics is supposed to be like.”
All of that was before August, when Republican primary voters chose the candidate with the history of promoting conspiracies, and President Trump in a tweet called her a “future Republican Star” and Kevin began learning more about Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose first major ad featured her roaring across a field in a Humvee, pulling out an AR-15 rifle and blasting targets labeled “open borders” and “socialism.”
He read that she was wealthy, had rented a condo in the district earlier in the year to run for Congress, and that before running she had built an online following by promoting baseless, fringe right-wing conspiracies — that Bill and Hillary Clinton have been involved in murders, that President Obama is a Muslim, and more recently, about the alternate universe known as QAnon.
“I’ve seen some mention of lizard people?” Kevin said, going through news articles to learn more about QAnon. “And JFK’s ghost? Or maybe he’s still alive? And QAnon is working with Trump to fight the deep state? I’m not sure I understand.”
He plunged deeper, reading about a world in which a cryptic online figure called Q is fighting to take down a network of Democrats, Hollywood actors and global elites who engage in child-trafficking and drink a life-extending chemical harvested from the blood of their victims. He read about an FBI memo warning that QAnon followers could pose a domestic terrorism threat, and the reality sank in that the only thing standing between Marjorie Taylor Greene and the halls of Congress was him. Kevin.
“I’m the one,” he said. “I’m it.”
That was how the campaign began. Thirty-one days later it was over, and within those 31 days is a chronicle of how one candidate representing the most extreme version of American politics is heading to Congress with no opposition, and the other is, in his words, “broken.”
It is an outcome that was in some ways years in the making, as all but the most committed Democrats in northwestern Georgia had long become Republican, or abandoned hope of winning the mostly White, mostly rural district of gun shops and churches, leaving the Democratic Party so weak that in 2018, the nominee for Congress was a man who had run a nudist retreat.
But as Greene gave a victory speech railing against the “hate-America left” and calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “b----,” Kevin sensed an opening. He would counter her extremism with moderation. He would talk about jobs and health care. He would double down on civility. As he told Vinny soon after hiring him as campaign manager, “People say I’m a nice guy, and I am. I think that’s the best approach.”
That was his plan, and meanwhile, in the days after Greene, who declined to comment for this story, became the Republican candidate, interest in the race grew far beyond the borders of Georgia as more and more people began realizing that the alternative to Greene was a guy named Kevin Van Ausdal.
“Vote for Kevin! He’s a regular dude!!” one person posted on Kevin’s campaign Facebook page.
“We need earnest people in Washington to solve real problems — not conspiracy nuts!” someone else wrote.
“America needs you Kevin!!” another person wrote.
As more people began following the campaign, Vinny realized he was going to need help, so he hired a deputy campaign manager named Ruth Demeter. He brought in a national consultant named Michael McGraw, whose firm specialized in long-shot bids, and now the new team was on a video call laying out a revised strategy to present to Kevin.
“Okay, first, an update on the current state of the race. Last night Marjorie went on a posting spree,” Michael said. “George Soros is behind a conspiracy to destroy America. The media is the enemy. You name it. She is not toning anything down. Any questions on that?”
He noted that out of roughly 413,000 registered voters in the 14th District, Greene’s winning vote total was less than 44,000, and that “we’re not seeing her promoted by Republican Party networks we’re used to.” He mentioned a political operative to whom Greene had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, someone who has described himself as a “hard-charging and controversial conservative consultant.” He said Greene had expressed support for the 17-year-old charged with killing two people during protests in Kenosha, Wis., calling the case the “first stage” of a new “Civil War.” And he said that while Greene was now distancing herself from QAnon, she had the support of QAnon social media groups as well as an array of local gun groups including one called the Georgia III % Martyrs.
There was a pause.
“Any questions on that?” Michael said, then explained what voters needed from Kevin:
“They want Kevin tofight. What they are looking for is a forceful response saying, ‘This iswrong.
This isverywrong. This ishorrifying. And we are not going to sit by and just let this happen.’ ”
They decided Kevin would have to address Greene directly in a strong video statement that would signal that the campaign was no longer a homespun fife-and-drum outfit but a major operation to defeat a candidate whose views they would call out as “extremist.”
“We need to be sure Kevin is comfortable with where we’re going,” Vinny said. “Ruth?”
“We’ve got to do it,” Ruth said.
“Okay,” said Vinny, and later that afternoon, they video-called Kevin, who listened as Michael explained: “We have to dramatically step up our language. I know this is not the place you’d like to be, but it’s the place we’re in now.”
Then Michael laid out in strong terms how he saw Greene framing the election, however preposterous his interpretation might seem: “Marjorie Greene is fighting for the soul of America and she will do anything it takes to save America, up to and including walking up to her Democratic opponent and shooting him in the head.”
Kevin didn’t say anything.
Michael continued: “That would be justified because she is saving America.”
Kevin was still quiet.
“This is so far away from the race you wanted to run, and I’m honestly kind of sorry about that, Kevin,” Michael said. “So, take your time with that.”
But there was no time. Ruth was already talking about getting a new camera for Kevin to record the video statement. Someone else was considering the backdrop — Kevin’s kitchen? A park?
Michael was going on about the “horrifying hellhole” they were all entering.
“This is the most toxic campaign most of us will ever see,” he said.
“If anyone needs a mental health day, please let me know,” Vinny said.