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 to fight. What they are looking for is a forceful response saying, ‘This is wrong. This is very wrong. This is horrifying. 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.
Kevin cleared his throat.
“How’re you doing, Kevin?” Michael said.
* * *
No one on the team was thrilled with where all this was heading. Vinny was used to working on campaigns that focused on issues, not name-calling. Michael felt that “far too many campaigns aren’t talking about governing but just telling you who to be mad at.” Ruth was a Canadian American who felt ill watching videos of Greene’s speeches, and even more ill seeing her neighbors in the audience applauding.
But they all agreed that ignoring Greene was not an option, so they began drafting the statement and emailing versions to Kevin, who kept suggesting revisions that made it softer, thinking he had made it harsher.
“He needs to be ready,” Vinny told Ruth on one of their daily video calls.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get him to use the kind of language we need him to use,” Ruth told Vinny. “It’s a very big shift for him.”
“How’s it going?” she said to Kevin on Day 21 of the campaign, trying to sound upbeat as they began to rehearse the draft statement.
Kevin said he had been trying to stay relaxed. He had a cold.
“Okay, I know you’re not feeling well, but the good news is, sometimes when you need to push through a barrier, the best time to do that is when you’re sick, because your defenses are down,” Ruth said. “We’re not going to take you anywhere horrible.”
“We’re good,” Kevin said.
“Okay, I want you to breathe deeply,” Ruth began. “A lot of your tonality will have to go down. There will be times when you’re speaking about what Marjorie has done and you’ll be angry. You’ll need to be angry.”
More often in his life, Kevin could not afford to be angry. His voice tended to swing up, a tone he found helpful in defusing conflicts in his job at a financial services company, which had enabled his first real stability as an adult. He’d only recently bought the tan split-level where he lived with his wife and 1-year-old daughter. Now it had a “Save the American Dream” sign in the flower bed by the mailbox, one of the stories of his rise into the middle class he’d imagined telling voters about when he first started running.
Another story was about the time he learned to install plumbing so that he and his wife could have running water in their trailer. Another was about finishing his college degree, working at an amusement park and selling his plasma for extra money to pay bills.
He was going to talk about growing up in a town outside Gary, Ind., where his mother was a municipal clerk and he’d worked as a page in the state legislature, feeling inspired by the marble and soaring rotunda and noticing how people would call a representative’s office for help solving some problem, which was how he got his idea of what politics could be, all of which was beginning to feel like long ago.
“So,” Ruth continued. “Talk to me about the things about Marjorie that are dangerous and embarrassing and appear to disregard the 14th District.”
“Okay, well, it’s really just the fearmongering?” Kevin said. There was the upswing, but Ruth let him go on. “It’s defining us. I don’t think I ever told you this, but I said to a preacher early on, you know, Jesus wants us to come together and love each other regardless of our beliefs. So when we’re fanning the flames of fear and violence — ”
“Okay,” Ruth interjected. “I love ‘fanning the flames of fear.’ But Kevin, I’m going to tell you something right now that’s really hard. This statement is about reaching people in the middle, and a lot of them are Republicans. For them, the language about love and peace is bad, or just not in their wheelhouse. … It’s got to be, ‘This has got to stop. I’m calling this out.’ ”
“Okay,” Kevin said.
“Try that ‘Enough is enough’ line,” Ruth said.
“Enough is enough — wait,” Kevin said, then tried again. “Enough is enough.”
“Oh, I love that,” Ruth said.
“I’m not going to act like this is a normal election,” he continued.
“Oh, that’s really good,” Ruth said.
“Enough is enough” Kevin repeated over and over, practicing the statement his team wanted to post as soon as possible to his 1,500 Facebook followers, and meanwhile, Greene had posted a new Facebook video for her 100,000 followers.
“We have had enough,” she began, launching a tirade against “the radical left” and “Marxist BLM” and “these thugs, these domestic terrorists, these anarchists, these insurrectionists” and the Democrats’ “globalist plans, their open-border plans, their take your guns away plans, their abortion kill babies up to birth and maybe even afterwards plans.” She urged people to enter a raffle to win the AR-15 she’d used in her campaign ad because “socialism does not belong in America” and “we need to blow it away.” And then, for the first time, she addressed Kevin.
“I’m running against a radical Democrat. A Democrat socialist. He’s an AOC progressive — that really means communist — candidate,” Green said, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), “who absolutely loves AOC and Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, you know, king of the basement dwellers. So, help me beat this Democrat in November. Help me go on to Congress.”
Below the video, her supporters began posting comments.
“WWG1WGA,” one wrote, using QAnon code for “Where we go one, we go all.”
“Gloves are off,” another wrote.
The comments kept coming, and Kevin, trying to calm his nerves, went into a spare bedroom, shut the door, and stayed there long enough that his wife finally texted him from another part of the house to see if he was okay.
“She is calling for a civil war!” he texted back, referring to Greene. “And I am expected to call her out tomorrow!”
He waited for a response. He and his wife had been having marital problems for a while, and the campaign wasn’t making anything better. When she did not write back, he texted again.
“F—–g crazy ass white supremacist terrorist support her. She is radicalizing them and I am supposed to call her out and become her enemy.”
“Omg really,” his wife texted back.
“I am not joking” he texted back.
“Wtf,” she texted.
“I am f—–g breaking down,” he texted back, not that anyone on the campaign team knew any of that was happening.
* * *
“Jesus Christ,” Michael said as another day began.
He had just seen Greene’s latest Facebook post, this one showing her in sunglasses and holding an AR-15 rifle next to a photo of three of the four Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad,” titled “Squad’s Worst Nightmare.”
“We need strong conservative Christians to go on the offense against these socialists who want to rip our country apart,” her post read, and now, as Pelosi was calling on House Republicans to condemn Greene and Rep. Ilhan Omar was calling the post a “violent provocation,” Michael was on a video call with Kevin and the team.
“I have Roll Call, NPR, Politico, CNN, NBC, New York Magazine, Slate, the Hill, Vox, BuzzFeed, not to mention a whole bunch of party people, calling,” Michael said.
The time for rehearsing was over. The angry statement about Greene had to post immediately, he said.
“I haven’t taken a shower,” Kevin said. “I was going to go to the post office and — ”
“Kevin. Take a moment. Breathe. Center yourself,” Michael said.
He took a moment. He breathed. And soon he was changing into the light blue shirt that the team had suggested, and rolling up the sleeves as they had suggested, and balancing his new camera and laptop on his kitchen table, centering his head in the frame of the screen.
“Okay,” Ruth said.
It was Day 24 of the campaign. He took a deep breath.
“Hi. I’m Kevin Van Ausdal,” he began, reading from the script on his laptop.
“All down tones,” Ruth reminded him. “Say it like you’re banging your hand and fist. Aus-dal. Dal is like the fist.”
“Dal,” Kevin said. “I will not stand by — ”
“Do me a favor. Take a deep breath. Put your shoulders back,” Ruth said. “Read it angry. It’s this crazy situation. Read it mad.”
“Hi. I’m Kevin Van Aus-dal. … Marjorie Taylor Greene does not represent us …”
“Again. Mad,” Ruth said.
“Marjorie Taylor Greene is not one of us …” Kevin said.
“Not one of us,” Ruth said.
“Not one of us …” Kevin said. “What’s the psychology behind this?”
“There’s psychology but I don’t have time to explain,” Ruth said. “Okay, go for it.”
“We are watching her use her platform to cheer violence against Democrats,” he continued, then stopped. “Be angry,” he reminded himself.
“Be angry,” Ruth said.
“There is a line. And Marjorie Greene is too far. Go to Kevin Van Ausdal dot com and join our fight for northwest Georgia and for the soul of our nation.” He paused. “Do I emphasize our? Or fight?”
“The thing you have to emphasize is soul,” Ruth said.
“Soul,” said Kevin.
“And you have to give it a little beat,” said Ruth. “So-ul.”
“For the so-ul of our nation,” Kevin said. “Like that?”
“Perfect,” Ruth said. “Remember. You’re angry.”
Kevin took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment.
“Hi, I’m Kevin Van Ausdal,” he began, and this time the camera was on and recording a man who appeared increasingly uncomfortable as he tried to hammer the singsong tone out of his voice and say words like “violence” and “civil war” while trying not to think about Greene’s armed supporters.
“One more time,” Ruth said.
Kevin cleared his throat and did it again, his eyes darting to the right as he read the statement. He did it again, and again, and after the fourth attempt they had a version they liked.
“That was great,” Ruth said.
“I think we can put the campaign logo in the corner,” said a new team member who had joined the call, and as they prepared to send the video into the world, Kevin turned off his computer and tried to calm down.
It was a warm and clear night, so he went outside into his yard to meditate, but all he could think about was how close politics was coming to violence. He thought about the time in 2018 when pipe bombs were mailed to former president Barack Obama and other Democrats by a man whose van was plastered with stickers of Trump, one of which read “KILL YOUR ENEMY.” He wondered if he was becoming the enemy.
Not that anyone on the campaign team knew any of that was happening, either.
Two days later, as the video was sailing around the Internet, Kevin put on his only suit and headed for a rare in-person event, a drive-in service at an African American church.
“Hi. I’m Kevin Van Ausdal,” he said through his mask into the window of a car, his tone reverting back to the Kevin of the drum-and-fife video. “I want to be your next congressman. I’m running against Marjorie Taylor Greene?”
“Well, we’re going to need you,” said the man inside. “We don’t need those radicals.”
“Hi, I’m Kevin …” he said through the window of the next car.
“Kevin Van Ausdal. That’s you?” said the woman inside. “I don’t even have to tell you how important this election is. What are you planning to do?”
“Well, we need opportunities in this country. I’m working to address health care, and green jobs …” he said, trying for a moment to be the candidate he wanted to be.
* * *
Day 27: “Hi, I’m Morgan. I’m your new assistant,” said the young man with the iPad who met Kevin in the parking lot of a Men’s Wearhouse. Ruth had booked him an appointment. “I’ll be following you the rest of the campaign.”
They raised their face masks and went inside, where a clerk ushered Kevin to a table laid out with navy blue, gray and plaid outfits, which Morgan began photographing to send to Ruth for approval.
“We’re going to make you look like a congressman,” the clerk said.
Morgan cracked his knuckles.
“Slip these on,” the clerk said, handing Kevin a light blue button-down and a blue blazer.
He put on the button-down over his T-shirt, and the blazer over that, and stood in his shorts and white socks on the box in front of the mirror. He looked at himself. He smoothed the front of the shirt. He turned to the side. He was losing weight from stress.
“Is it out of your comfort zone?” the clerk asked.
It was, he wanted to say. All of what politics had become in America was out of his comfort zone — the lack of substance, the conspiracies, and especially the anger, which he nonetheless realized was working. Donations were skyrocketing. Hollywood actors were following him. And the team’s internal polling was showing that he had momentum — every time Greene posted some new statement, she got more followers, and every time Kevin answered, more people rallied to his campaign, a dynamic of ever-escalating outrage.
“You will have to be more aggressive than this! She is running on pure crazy!” a woman wrote on his Facebook page.
“Kevin, please stop this insane woman who only wants to spread hate and division!” someone else wrote.
“WE MUST STOP THIS CRAZY PERSON MARJORIE GREENE!!!!!!!”
There were other comments, too, ones that the team tried to remove before Kevin could see them, but he did see them or hear about them, such as one that read “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” and one that read “I bet if I put a gun to his face he’d cry like a baby.”
Now Morgan was showing him two more red ties.
“The bright red will show up better in photos,” Morgan said.
“Okay,” Kevin said.
The clerk rang up the power tie, the blue suit, a blazer and five shirts, and Kevin went home, where he and his wife got into an argument. They had been arguing a lot, but this time it kept degenerating until his wife said she wanted a divorce. Kevin said she could not possibly understand the stress he was under. He asked if she could wait until after the election, but she said no, she was done, and they kept on arguing until Kevin punched a wall hard enough that he broke the paneling.
Day 28: Kevin was on the phone with Ruth trying to process everything when there was a knock at the door. It was a sheriff’s deputy. He was there to serve Kevin a petition for divorce, which included his wife’s description of a troubled marriage brought under increasing pressure from a man falling apart, as well as an order she had obtained requiring that he leave the house immediately.
Day 29: The team tried to figure out what to do. Kevin was in a hotel, effectively homeless. He had no money to pay for an extended hotel stay or an apartment, and federal rules prevented using campaign funds for housing.
Day 30: Political strategy took over as the team decided that if Kevin left Georgia and moved in with his parents in Indiana, he might be disqualified, which was the only hope the party had of naming a replacement so close to Election Day, and so Michael told Kevin what he already knew: “This is beyond you.”
“People are looking for somebody to stand against Marjorie,” he said. “I’ve seen it where moments like this become a rallying cry.”
Then it was the next day, and Kevin was in his Honda heading west to Indiana as the campaign staff issued a statement on his behalf, titled “A Message from Kevin”:
“I am heartbroken to announce that for family and personal reasons, I cannot continue this race for Congress. The next steps in my life are taking me away from Georgia …”
And that was the end of 31 days.
* * *
Greene, background left, has an armed escort at a campaign rally at the Northwest Georgia Amphitheatre in Ringgold, Ga., on Sept. 19.
Brenda Fox, left, Leslie Kleist and Marti Robles listen to a speaker at a Greene rally at the Coosa Valley fairgrounds in Rome on Aug. 29.
Joshua Abernathy, center, and Bill Buoni, left, listen as Greene speaks at the Coosa Valley fairgrounds. (Photos by Jessica Tezak for the Washington Post)
TOP: Greene, background left, has an armed escort at a campaign rally at the Northwest Georgia Amphitheatre in Ringgold, Ga., on Sept. 19. BOTTOM LEFT: Brenda Fox, left, Leslie Kleist and Marti Robles listen to a speaker at a Greene rally at the Coosa Valley fairgrounds in Rome on Aug. 29. BOTTOM RIGHT: Joshua Abernathy, center, and Bill Buoni, left, listen as Greene speaks at the Coosa Valley fairgrounds. (Photos by Jessica Tezak for the Washington Post)
A week later, Marjorie Taylor Greene was arriving in her Humvee for a pro-gun rally at a rural amphitheater not far from where Kevin once lived.
Alongside county sheriff’s deputies, the Georgia III% Martyrs provided security: a dozen or so men and a few women equipped with AR-15s, earpieces, camouflage and bulletproof vests. One man had a battle ax dangling from his belt. They fanned out around the fenced perimeter of the park while a hundred or so Greene supporters milled around, a few wearing little patches that read “WWG1WGA” or “Q Army” and others who said they didn’t know or care about QAnon but just knew that Greene “shares our values.”
“Marjorie was all there for us, one hundred percent,” said Ray Blankenship, who had in August started a new gun group called the Catoosa County Civil Defense League to guard against everything he believed Democrats stood for, including gun confiscation, rioting and socialism. “People will step up when it’s time,” he said.
Onstage, a guest speaker was talking about “a time when you will be asked to shed another man’s blood because he is a threat to your very way of life.” Another talked about “the communist Democrats.” Another said that vice-presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris “wants to come to your house and take your guns away.” Another began his speech by yelling into the microphone, “FREEDOM!!!!” and out in the audience, a man wearing a hat with a “Q Army” patch was listening.
“I think people are waking up,” said the man, Butch Lapp.
“The silent majority is silent no more,” said his wife, Rebecca, and now the Martyrs were radioing each other for “backup,” and forming a protective huddle around Greene as she made her way to the stage with no opposition anywhere in sight.
“I am so proud and so excited to represent northwest Georgia!” she began.
And meanwhile, Kevin had arrived at his parents’ house outside Gary, Ind., where he was sleeping in his old bedroom in the basement, scrolling through his Facebook page as news spread that his campaign was over.
“Nooooo!!!” someone wrote.
“WTF?!?” someone else wrote.
“Wow dude you just F—D your state,” another person wrote.
“You’re a loser, a disgrace!!”
There were other comments thanking him for his bravery, but after a while, he stopped scrolling. He stopped reading Facebook. He stopped reading Twitter. He started taking long walks around his old neighborhood, going step by step through the progression of all that had happened.
“I wanted to be the voice of reason against fear. I wanted to draw attention to big issues in the district,” he said during a walk one afternoon, thinking back to the beginning.
“My opponent, unfortunately, embraced QAnon beliefs. I saw her disgusting comments. I thought, ‘She is basically talking like a terrorist,’ ” Kevin said.
“When I had to do that statement, I was scared,” he said. “I’m being told I need to make a direct attack on groups who respond to people with violence. Who glorify violence.”
“My staff had monitored backchannels and seen where Q people were making threats, and we talked about what to do about death threats,” he said.
“I felt out of control. I had no control. I felt unreal. I didn’t know what to do with myself in the quiet. I felt uneasy. I felt I was on the rails and floating through,” he said.
“I was breaking down,” he said. “I was just broken.”
But now all of that was over, and he was walking down a street in Indiana describing the person he had become in the fall of 2020.
“I’ve not really been eating. I’ve been sleeping a lot. Avoiding news. I blocked anyone talking ill about me. One or two said they want to punch me in the face,” Kevin said.
“I’m worried the political situation is not going to get better. I worry we may not be able to turn it around. I knew Trump was a fascist, and I knew he was going to destroy this country, but I didn’t know how much. And Marjorie’s only going to make it worse.”
He started to go on, but he was feeling his anger rising and he stopped.
“I’m trying to stay away from it,” Kevin said.
He kept walking, trying to clear his mind, remembering how he felt when all of this began, when he was walking into the state capital building full of optimism about what American democracy could be.
“It was spectacular,” he said.