ROME, Ga. — The request for a campaign contribution came in an email. Or was it a text? Gerald Luongo gets so many he can’t remember.
Luongo does recall that he was eager to give $25 to the Democrat — he struggles to recall his name — who’s running to unseat Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican congresswoman whose recent outrages include calling Democrats the “party of pedophiles” and speaking at a white nationalist’s political conference.
“What she’s saying and doing is annoying the hell out of me,” says Luongo, 83. “A disgrace.”
A few weeks after his contribution, an automated text popped up on Luongo’s phone from the same Democratic candidate. “Hey, it’s Marcus Flowers,” the text began, explaining that a donation “before midnight” would maintain the momentum needed to “end” Marjorie Taylor Greene’s “tenure of terror.” This time, Luongo gave $50.
Then another, “Hey, it’s Marcus” text arrived a few days after that. So he sent another $50.
It didn’t matter that Luongo doesn’t live in Georgia, let alone the district where Flowers is running. Nor does it seem to matter that Flowers — or any Democrat, for that matter — is viewed as having little chance of unseating Greene, who won in 2020 with nearly 75 percent of the vote in one of Georgia’s most pro-Trump areas (although his name appeared on the ballot, the Democrat running against Greene that year dropped out early, citing personal reasons).
“It’s important that we tell Marjorie Taylor Greene that not everyone likes her,” Luongo says by phone from Boca Raton, Fla. where he owns a language school. “I get to make a statement.”
A maxim of American politics in the digital age is that anyone, even a no-name challenger launching a long-shot campaign, can raise gobs of cash if they have the right opponent, preferably one who inspires widespread scorn.
For Marcus Flowers, 46, an Army veteran who only recently discovered an interest in politics, the right opponent is Greene, who in the past has made comments that even fellow Republicans called “appalling,” “disgusting” and “bigoted,” and who has energetically echoed former president Donald Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election. Flowers, among three Democrats competing for the chance to face Greene, rarely utters more than a few words without mentioning her. “I’m Marcus Flowers,” he likes to say, in an easy-on-the-ears baritone, “Army veteran and Democrat running to unseat Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
This strategy helped him raise more than $8.1 million by early May, according to his most recent campaign finance report. As of Monday, according to the Federal Election Commission’s website, he had raised more money than any congressional challenger in the country, despite the fact that experts doubt a Democrat can win Georgia’s 14th District, even with a recent redistricting making it ever so slightly less red.
“This district is solidly Republican,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor. “If the goal is to unseat Marjorie Taylor Greene, I would not hold my breath.”
Yet some Democrats are hoping Greene’s incendiary words and antics make her vulnerable — even to a Democratic challenger. “There’s a sense of people being tired of her shtick,” said Vinny Olsziewski, an adviser to Wendy Davis, another Democrat in the race (not to be confused with the former Texas state senator).
How Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, promoter of QAnon’s baseless theories, rose with support from key Republicans (from 2021)
Jen Jordan, a Georgia state senator supporting Flowers, said victories aren’t the only way to measure a long shot’s political value. Especially in a state like Georgia, where an uptick in turnout can have broader consequences. “It’s about losing less,” said Jordan, who is running for attorney general.
If Flowers can drive up turnout, Jordan says, he can help Democrats in tighter races — Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, say, or gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. “That’s why you need good Democrats running,” she says. “It adds up.”
A Greene spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Long-shot candidates raising heaps of cash have drawn notice in the past. In one especially memorable Democratic cash bonfire, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath lost by nearly 20 points to Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky despite outspending McConnell by $25 million. In New York, Republican John Cummings raised $11 million running against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and lost by 44 percentage points.
Lauren Harper, a co-founder of the Welcome PAC, an organization that promotes a “big-tent” Democratic Party, said Democrats should train resources on competitive races. “We can’t just focus our energy on the people who are driving us bananas,” she said. “It’s a matter of us not using our money as wisely as we could.”
Flowers has built a fundraising powerhouse that uses emails and texts, as well as posts and ads on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, to cash in on how many people around the country wish Greene were not in Congress. His donors include Patricia Arquette, Felicity Huffman, Kyra Sedgwick and also lots of fired-up liberals who aren’t famous actresses. In a black cowboy hat that has become his signature campaign accessory, Flowers asks for small donations — $5, $10, or $25 — but he is happy to take more.
“I probably get an email a day from his campaign,” said Pete DeSimone, the manager of a National Audubon Society sanctuary in California who gave Flowers $1,000. “I don’t know much about him. But I know enough about her that I’d like to see her beaten. I just wanted to do something.”
Martinus Nickerson, a retired traffic engineer in Bellingham, Wash., gave Flowers $2,900. Reached by phone, he pauses when asked about the candidate. “He’s running for Congress, is that right?” After being reminded that Greene holds the seat Flowers hopes to win, Nickerson says he doesn’t need to know anything more to justify his contribution.
“Democrats are irrationally throwing money into the campaign,” says Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist who advised the candidate who lost to Greene in the 2020 primary. “It’s scratching an itch. They hate Marjorie Taylor Greene so much, they want to do something to manifest their hatred in a tangible way.”
“I hear it every day: ‘You can’t win.’ That means zero to me.”
Marcus Flowers is sitting in his campaign headquarters, a cavernous storefront in Rome, about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta. On the campaign trail he often looks as if he walked off the set of a contemporary western, in his cowboy hat, silver belt buckle, blue jeans and square-toed boots. As a younger man, he wore the uniform of the U.S. Army, where he attained the rank of sergeant and later worked as a military contractor. He talks in the tough-guy language of a soldier, with references to his “mission” and pleas to voters like, “I can’t take this hill alone.”
Flowers, who is Black, often says his decision to enter politics was heavily influenced by the 2020 killing of George Floyd, and he has described the Jan. 6, 2021, attack as the moment running for Congress “became mission-critical for me.” He frames his candidacy as a virtuous expression of underdog resolve. “Do you just say, ‘You’re a Democrat,’ you don’t run at all, you don’t put up a fight, you just sit back and say, ‘It’s an unwinnable race’?” he says. “That ain’t me.”
Flowers has raised far more money than his Democratic opponents. Holly McCormack, a small-business owner, has raised more than $1.8 million, according to campaign finance records. Davis, a local elected official and longtime party organizer, has raised $485,000.
Davis said in an interview that she rejected strategists who “pitched to me that you spend a lot of money to buy a lot of donor lists and you email the list constantly and call Marjorie Taylor Greene the devil and people will send you money.”
She acknowledged that Flowers’s fundraising advantage may help him win the primary. But in a general election, “I don’t see how he takes his messaging and wins Republican voters over,” Davis says. “It creates an us-vs.-them environment, Republicans are the enemy. It doesn’t benefit me to say my neighbors are kooks.”
Steven Sherry, a former adviser to McCormack, also expressed uneasiness about the approach, which he said has been in vogue since Democrats across the country made a point of rejecting corporate donations. “The issue is we’re taking $25 from our grandmother because we’re sending her an email that says if she doesn’t, the insurrection is just the beginning,” he said. “They freak people out. It’s a race to the bottom in how we can trick you into giving us money.”
Flowers says nobody’s tricking anybody here.
“I’m sounding the alarm,” he says, adding that “2022 is a dry run for an authoritarian takeover in 2024.”
Flowers knows how to get attention. A month before entering the race, he tweeted a video of himself using a razor blade to peel a Confederate flag sticker off what appears to be a public utility box. “I’m Marcus Flowers, and I’m here to say, ‘No more,’” he said, crumpling the sticker.
The video caught the eye of an Atlanta-based digital advertising and fundraising strategist named Bobby Kaple, whose firm, Blue Chip Strategies, produced Flowers’s first campaign video, in which the candidate talks about his military background amid images of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and references to some of Greene’s most outlandish statements.
“Her twisted conspiracy theories may have helped make her famous, but they haven’t done a damn thing for the people here in the district,” Flowers says in the video.
After entering the race, Flowers tried to get into a rally that Greene and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) held in Georgia and turned the outing into more social media content. “Just got kicked out of the ‘America First’ rally with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz because they said I was a threat,” Flowers says in a video his campaign posted on Facebook.
“I’m not a threat to her,” he later says. “Perhaps to her job if you help me out. So, please, chip in five, 10 dollars — whatever you can — and let’s end this national nightmare.”
As of early May the Flowers campaign had spent $7.4 million of the $8.1 million it had raised, according to campaign finance records.
He had paid Blue Chip Strategies over $2.5 million. He also had spent more than $1 million on another firm, Run the World Digital — which, as its website advertises, “uses proven customized programs and data-driven strategies to engage your supporters, generate contributions, and boost your bottom line.” Consultants often spend a portion of their earnings on media buys and placing digital ads, among other costs. Kaple, the chief executive of Blue Chip, declined to comment on the record, as did the chief executive of Run the World.
Since March 30 Flowers has given about $1 million to Buying Time LLC, a media strategist, to target and purchase advertising space for his message, the records show. A Buying Time executive did not respond to messages seeking comment.
His current Facebook tab is more than $2.5 million.
“Your picture just keeps showing up,” Jeff Tate, 50, a mutual fund salesman, tells Flowers.
It’s a Saturday morning in late April. Marcus Flowers was ambling through a BBQ, Boogie and Blues festival in Calhoun, Ga., when Tate recognized him from the four or five mailers that have arrived at his house. The mailers feature photos of Flowers in a cowboy hat that looks like the one the candidate is now wearing.
Tate says his household is split when it comes to the primary. While he says his wife is leaning toward Wendy Davis, he thinks Flowers’s military background could help him appeal to conservative voters and take on Greene. “I’m glad you’re here,” he tells Flowers.
They’re standing at the Gordon County Democrats’ table, among rows of vendors offering servings of barbecue. Some people aren’t as happy that a Democrat is here. The man selling Farmers Insurance at the neighboring table hung a “Trump 2020” banner to block his view of the Democrats’ booth. His setup also features a Marjorie Taylor Greene campaign sign.
At the Republican table nearby, Harry Russell, 84, a retiree wearing a shirt designed as an American flag, laughs at the idea that any Democrat can beat Greene. “The more they lie about her, the more popular she gets,” he says.
The Greene campaign may even see Flowers’s fundraising success as an opportunity to generate more donations from Republicans. Flowers’s adviser, Chase Goodwin, shared a screenshot of what appears to be a recent fundraising email from Marjorie Taylor Greene’s campaign, which has raised more than $10 million.
“HELP MTG BEFORE TONIGHT’s DEADLINE, DONATE TODAY!” the plea begins. “I’m afraid of what will happen if I fall short. The Communist Democrat running against me raked in over $8,000,000 to defeat me…”