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GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia


GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia

Jun 16, 2024 | 1:00 am ET
By Ross Williams Jill Nolin
GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia
Early voting in Georgia's Second Congressional District. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

ELLAVILLE – David Theiss, a former mayor of Ellaville, has watched his town’s population – and the hope for another generation of Ellaville residents – dwindle over the years.

“We’ve got empty buildings sitting here that we could be using. We’ve got one of the best schools in the whole state in this county, but we can’t keep kids here because there’s nothing to do. There’s no jobs. We graduate kids out here at Schley County High School, they’re going to college and they’re smart kids, but they can’t stay here,” Theiss said.

Theiss, who is also a former longtime chair of the Schley County GOP party, spoke with the Recorder as he filled his tank at the local Gas N Go Thursday across the street from a colorful Ellaville mural.

GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia
Former Ellaville Mayor and GOP Chair David Theiss. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Schley County, which is home to about 4,500 people, is one of the many rural, ruby red communities in southwest Georgia that are part of Georgia’s sprawling Second Congressional District, which also includes most of Macon and most of Columbus and bigger cities like Albany that tend to vote for Democrats. Two Republicans are on the ballot Tuesday in a runoff election that will determine which GOP candidate will face the district’s longtime congressman, Albany Democrat Sanford Bishop, in the fall. In a district with a Democratic tilt, Bishop is favored to win another term.

Former Trump administration official Wayne Johnson was the top vote-getter last month with nearly 45% of the vote. Chuck Hand, a construction superintendent who was convicted of a misdemeanor in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, took second place with about 32% of the vote. Third-place finisher Michael Nixon has endorsed Johnson.

Theiss said he is telling people to vote for Hand in the Republican runoff.

“I haven’t known Chuck as long as I’ve known Wayne, but I’ve watched both of them,” Theiss said. “I just like Chuck better. Chuck will speak his mind. He’s not going to be cowed by trying to be politically correct or trying to smooth this guy over and all that kind of stuff, he’s just going to tell you the way it is.”

Ellaville resident George Vickery, who works in construction, is not so sure.

Vickery said he voted for Hand last month, but now he’s on the fence after Hand’s performance at last week’s Atlanta Press Club debate made him question Hand’s ability to speak truth to power. Instead of participating in the debate, Hand read a prepared statement after being introduced and abruptly walked out of the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio just minutes into the livestreamed debate.

“Republican or Democrat, not one of them are there for the right reasons. They’re there to line their pockets. They may go in thinking they’re going to make a change, but then they follow right in with the crowd because they don’t have enough testicular fortitude to stand against the other people,” Vickery said.

GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia
Chuck Hand, a GOP candidate for the 2nd congressional district, abruptly left during Sunday’s Atlanta Press Club debate. J. Glenn Photography

“We just need somebody who’s willing to stand there and fight. And he ran,” he said of Hand. “I wish he hadn’t done that because that changed my whole opinion of him.”

Debate walk-out brings new attention to GOP runoff

The race for the GOP nomination had been largely playing out under the radar before Hand’s debate stunt attracted national news.

But it was a different story last time Bishop was on the ballot. In 2022, the National Republican Congressional Committee targeted Bishop’s seat as one it would attempt to flip that year. But in the end, Bishop handily won reelection by nearly 10 percentage points.

The district boundaries continue to favor Bishop, who has represented the district for three decades.

Johnson says he has been frustrated by the media’s coverage of Hand’s walkout of the debate. Johnson, who stayed and finished taking questions from reporters, called Hand’s performance a “a big con show moment” and said his rival walked out of the “the most important job interview of his life.”

He also lamented the lost opportunity for voters to learn more about the candidates. The question Hand walked out on was about the new farm bill that is in the works in Washington.

The Macon candidate said he believes Hand’s viral debate moment might appeal to voters drawn to “political entertainment”, but he thinks it will backfire with other voters.

But low-turnout runoff elections, particularly a summertime one, can serve up surprises.

“On the whole, there are more people that will vote and take their civic responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately, because of the timing of the runoff, they’re either on vacation, or they’re not aware of what’s going on, or they’re just fatigued,” Johnson said in an interview.

GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia
Wayne Johnson, a GOP candidate for Georgia’s 2nd congressional district, answers questions during Sunday’s Atlanta Press Club debate. Hand was represented by an empty podium after unexpectedly leaving early in the debate. J. Glenn Photography

In a phone call with the Recorder Thursday, Hand said reception to the walk-out has been largely positive.

Hand has said he left the studio because of a press conference held by Nixon, the former candidate, who shared what he learned after hiring a law firm to investigate claims about Hand and his wife that Nixon said were passed along to him earlier in the race. Johnson has said he had no role in that press conference.

“Of all the people I’ve been talking to since then, it’s about one out of every hundred who have something negative to talk about it. But once I discuss with them further, deeper into that, they come on back,” Hand said.

“Our phone has been ringing off of the hook with support since Sunday. Our fundraising has picked up a lot. Overall, it’s been a positive for us,” he added.

A convicted Jan. 6 rioter runs for Congress

Hand, who is one of at least four people convicted of Jan. 6 offenses running for Congress this year, has been open about his role in the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress worked to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. He mentions it on his campaign website and speaks about it at events.

Hand pleaded guilty to one count of parading, demonstrating or picketing inside a Capitol building in connection with Jan. 6 and served 20 days in federal prison and six months probation.

Prosecutors said Hand and his wife Mandy Robinson-Hand illegally entered the Capitol during the riot and spent nearly 20 minutes inside. Prosecutors said he placed a “baton-like” piece of broken fencing in his pocket before entering the Capitol. Inside, he was photographed helping another rioter place a Trump flag in the hands of a statue of North Carolina politician Charles Brantley Aycock, and according to court documents, he attempted to move toward an altercation between police and protesters, but was held back by Robinson-Hand.

“January 6, 2021 is not my story, it does not define me. January 6, 2021 is a chapter in my story, a chapter that I look forward to closing,” Hand wrote in a letter to the judge last January.

But Johnson said Hand is essentially running on Jan. 6.

“That’s been the total basis of his appeal,” Johnson said.

Nixon, the third-place finisher who has endorsed Johnson, says Hand’s Jan. 6 conviction is a central theme of his campaign.

“I have never been to an event that he’s out where he does not speak about Jan. 6 in his speech,” Nixon said.

Another candidate asked Hand about his campaign’s focus on his Jan. 6 history at an earlier Atlanta Press Club debate in late April.

“My campaign is not based on Jan. 6. The only reason Jan. 6 ever comes up in my campaign is so that you three cannot throw it in my face,” Hand said at the time.

Participation in Jan. 6 may bolster Hand’s popularity in places like Schley County, Theiss said, but it could also damage him in more populated places like Macon and Columbus, where he would need to perform well to have a chance in a general election.

Hand blamed the media for painting all Jan. 6 participants as violent and said he will be open with voters about his involvement.

“Like I’ve stated many times on the campaign trail, you can look at my court documents and anything, just simply look it up,” Hand said in an interview. “My wife and I were peaceful, nonviolent protesters that day. That’s what we did to the definition of the term. Yes, there were bad people there. Yes, there were people who didn’t know how to act that day and showed their butts, and they should be punished for that. But as far as my wife and myself go, like I said, you can look it up.”

But Nixon’s investigation into the Hands’ background raised new questions about how peaceful Chuck Hand intended to be that day and says it shows that the Hands’ activity went beyond constitutionally protected expressions of speech. He says he held the press conference last month to outline his findings in hopes of getting “dirty laundry” out in the open during the GOP primary.

“Nobody looks at, beginning to end, A to Z, exactly what happened on Jan. 6, and so a lot of people think that people went there to peacefully protest, and there were a lot of people who went there to peacefully protest. That was a fact,” Nixon said in an interview.

“But then the people that actually went into the federal building, your average person could probably think, ‘Gee, I probably shouldn’t go into this federal building where there is shattered glass and tear gas.’”

‘Sanford Bishop is my man’

But winning as a Republican in the Second District would be hard for either candidate. Tuesday’s winner will go into the general election as the underdog when they face the longtime congressman.

GOP Congressional hopefuls square up for runoff in southwest Georgia
Congressman Sanford Bishop (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mary H. Ball, a doctor of theology born and raised in Bibb County, pulled a Democratic ballot at the early voting location inside Macon Mall Thursday to cast a vote in state and local races.

She said she hasn’t been paying much attention to the Republican race, but she thinks whoever wins won’t stand a chance against Bishop in November.

“I love him, I love everything about him, I love everything that he’s been doing,” she said. “In all of his campaigns he did, he tells us what he’s willing to do. And as long as I’ve known him, he’s come through. And anything that he did not do, it wasn’t because he didn’t fight for it. He fought for it, but we know that the majority wins. So Sanford Bishop is my man.”

Democrats are feeling confident about Bishop’s prospects. Congresswoman Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, said Friday that Bishop has been delivering for the district for three decades and is working with President Joe Biden to tackle issues that matter to residents, such as capping the cost of insulin for seniors living with diabetes and securing funding for rural broadband expansion.

“Georgia voters have chosen Congressman Bishop over his extreme Republican challengers time and time again, and we’re excited to reelect him this November in order for him to continue delivering for Middle and Southwest Georgia,” Williams said in a statement Friday.

Both Republicans on Tuesday’s ballot have acknowledged that they will need to win over Democratic voters to oust Bishop.

Johnson has cast himself as a more moderate Republican. He was a senior official with the U.S. Department of Education under President Donald Trump, but he is in favor of overhauling student loans, including a plan to forgive debt in exchange for 20 hours of community service for every $1,000 canceled. And he opposes cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, as has been proposed by congressional Republicans in the new farm bill.

Johnson says he isn’t interested in dwelling on the 2020 presidential election, though he says he thinks the election showed the need for stronger authentication processes for absentee voting.

“That election has been litigated. It’s gone through all the process of determination. It is what it is and really not much value to come from dealing with it,” Johnson said.

Johnson argues he would be more attentive to local issues, such as the controversial plans to build a massive monkey breeding facility in Bainbridge. He says the facility, which will breed and sell monkeys to pharmaceutical companies, universities and laboratories for medical research, needs federal oversight.

Hand has criticized Johnson for not living in the district. Johnson lives just outside the district boundary line in Macon and says he employs people in the district and owns properties inside the district. He says he will move to a home he owns in Plains if elected, though it is not required.

Hand has pitched himself as a foil to the “corrupt political class” and says he wants to represent the district’s working class. He has regularly posted short videos on social media.

“Not only am I running towards Congress, but I’m taking full strides and charging straight towards a corrupt United States Capitol – again,” he said in a video posted to social media Tuesday. “But I’m offering you a solution, a way to express your frustrations with a corrupt federal government by giving the working class people of southwest Georgia a voice and a say.”

Hand also indicated that he has accepted the results of the 2020 election after being asked by a reporter last Sunday who won.

“Joe Biden won. Ain’t he the president?” Hand said.