COLUMBUS, Ga. — Jeremy Hunt sprang to the front of the large DoubleTree Hotel conference room to address the crowd of 200 mostly White military veterans, Republican county officials and state lawmakers who were weeks away from deciding the Republican nominee for Georgia’s only competitive House race.
“I’m not afraid of the cultural fight,” he said, before railing against perceived Democratic Party domination of Hollywood, academia and Big Tech, the latter he accused of feeding children “poison on our phones.”
“We have to make sure that we get back our culture,” he continued. “I don’t want to be telling stories about how America used to be. And I don’t want my daughter to grow up in an America where she’s told that she’s a victim based on the color of her skin. You can take that foolishness back to the 1960s where it belongs.”
The room erupted in applause.
Over the next 10 minutes, the 28-year-old Hunt, clad in a navy blue suit (sans tie), addressed the crowd’s anxieties over rising fuel prices, American exceptionalism, standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why grandparents feel alienated from their grandchildren who have been indoctrinated with “woke nonsense.”
After the rally, White voters zeroed in on why they thought Hunt could ultimately defeat the nearly 30-year incumbent, Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr.
“He’s articulate,” said Jeff Jolly, the 68-year-old chairman of the Grady County GOP. “He’s young. And he’s likable. And he will listen.”
If Hunt, who finished in first place (37 percent) in the six-way May primary, wins the runoff, he’ll have to beat Bishop, a Black Democrat. This task has been made slightly more achievable by a favorably redrawn congressional map that makes the 2nd District slightly more conservative.
And slightly less Black.
A Hunt victory will require a complicated two-step. In a hyperpartisan era, he will have to win over a conservative base that feels besieged by the culture wars raging across the country while appealing to Black voters who have historically been wary of the Republican Party. The district is 49 percent Black after congressional lines were redrawn by the Georgia legislature, down from 51 percent.
The district in southern Georgia encompasses hundreds of acres of dairy farms, churches and roadside barbecue stands. Tall oaks cast long shadows across fields that will soon yield cotton, peanuts or corn. In its previous iteration, it was among the 10 poorest districts in the country and only 18 percent of its residents over age 25 held college degrees.
It is also a place where many feel connected to Fort Benning, the base where Hunt served after graduating from West Point — another calling card for the former U.S. Army captain.
“When I found out that he had gone to West Point, graduated with honors, I knew what that meant,” said Brenda Jolly, 67. “It’s almost impossible to get into West Point. I like the military experience.”
The district is a nearly perfect staging ground for Republicans hoping to make inroads with poor and working-class Black voters.
It is a challenge being taken on by several Black Republicans this year. Wesley Hunt, considered a party rising star, is running for a House seat in Texas, while John James is running in Michigan and Jennifer-Ruth Green in Indiana. Another Georgia star, Herschel Walker, is running to unseat Sen. Raphael G. Warnock but has been beset by controversy.
While Hunt can be loquacious, there is one challenge hanging over his House run that he doesn’t like to bring up: Trump. The most prominent figure in the Republican Party — or his history of racially insensitive remarks — is never mentioned in Hunt’s stump speech. That may be a safe bet after Gov. Brian Kemp won the state’s Republican primary by 50 points even after the former president endorsed his opponent.
Hunt said that he has benefited from Trump’s ascendance and the former president’s shedding more light on the concerns of working-class voters. But “we’re not going to win this based on the previous administration. We’re going to win this based on focusing on the future and what our movement’s going to do for our communities,” he said.
At the DoubleTree rally, Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, and the first minority and first female governor of South Carolina, doesn’t mention Trump either. She opens her speech supporting Hunt with a story she’s fond of telling about her childhood in the Palmetto State.
“My father wore a turban — and still does to this day,” said Haley, who is Indian American. “My mother wore a sari. We weren’t White enough to be White. We weren’t Black enough to be Black. And I remember when I would get teased on the playground. I would come home and my mom would say, ’Your job is not to show them how you’re different. Your job is to show them how you’re similar.’ ”
Hunt likes to tell his own optimistic story of American acceptance, with a twist of redemption. He’s a sixth-generation Georgian, whose enslaved ancestors worked the southern Georgia soil. His grandmother went to Fort Valley State University, a small historically Black college near Macon. His father, Garland Sr., attended Howard University.
At Howard, Garland would flirt with Pan-Africanism and the teachings of Louis Farrakhan, even introducing the Nation of Islam leader during a campus event. “He was racist,” Hunt says of his father. “I mean, he just felt like White people were all evil.”
But that was before Garland became a born-again Christian. “I began to see the most important thing was my love for Christ, not my love for race,” Garland said during a 2018 interview with the Stream, a Christian website. “I had to confess some racial prejudice in my own heart. Then I asked the Lord to help me, and He did.” Garland would go on to write books, co-host a local television show (“The Gospel in Black and White”) and found a church dedicated to racial reconciliation.
“He’s definitely a chip off the block,” Garland said of his son. Garland has been involved in Republican politics for decades and would bring Hunt to party events where they met leaders such as former senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), “who would speak to [Jeremy] before he spoke to me.”
Hunt said he learned from his father that racism could be an obstacle only if he let it.
His belief would be tested when he was a junior at a predominantly White high school in Johns Creek, Ga. Shortly after Barack Obama became America’s first Black president, Hunt walked out of his home to discover his 1997 Nissan Maxima covered in white paint, he says, with expressions like “Kill Obama” and “F that n-----.” It took him about 30 minutes to clean it off.
“I was more offended that they thought I supported Obama,” he joked in an interview back at his Columbus campaign headquarters. But at the time he was distraught and sought his father’s advice. “Go to school, get excellent grades, be the top of your class,” he said his father told him. “That’s how you defeat racism.”
Hunt, who is taking Yale Law School classes online and was attending in person before his campaign, says he didn’t want to give in to “victimhood.”
Hunt bursts with energy when he talks yet manages to stay on message, punctuating his sentences with hearty guffaws. He becomes especially animated when talking about what he sees as the overinflated concerns of the Black middle class being given more attention than those of poor and working-class Black people. In his campaign manager’s office, littered with loose papers of voter information and Tucker Carlson shot glasses, Hunt lays out his case for why Black voters should support him over Bishop.
“They mock our values,” he says of Democrats. “They mock Christianity. We are the party of the working class.” He has a plan to reach out to Black churches throughout the district. “And so that’s how we’re going to win this.”
It’s a conundrum that has bedeviled some Republicans for years: Black voters who are cultural, religious or economic conservatives still voting Democratic. The 88 percent of Black voters Biden won in Georgia helped him carry the state by the thinnest of margins.
“My sense is that an African American Republican is not going to really do that much better than a White Republican running against an African American Democrat,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University. “Black Republicans have tended to be elected in districts where Whites make up a large majority of the electorate. They haven’t been elected by winning a large share of Black votes.”
What makes Hunt so confident that this time is different?
Electoral inertia. The president’s party typically fares poorly during the midterms, and this fall is shaping up to be a particularly brutal one for Democrats. Republicans see an opening among disaffected voters who may want to punish Democrats for high gas prices, rampant inflation and general pandemic malaise.
If anyone understands the challenges Hunt faces, it’s Dylan Glenn, who as a young Black Republican made two doomed attempts to win the 2nd District seat, in 1998 and 2000.
Bishop has used his seat on the House Agriculture Committee to forge deep ties with conservative farmers who wield political clout in a district where agriculture is a major economic engine. For half of his tenure the district was actually majority White. “He used to be the most conservative member of the Black Caucus,” said Charles Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. Bishop easily won this year’s Democratic primary with almost 94 percent of the vote.
In addition to an entrenched incumbent, Hunt is facing some of the same challenges that stymied Glenn, attacked by his opponents as a “carpetbagger” whose campaign was controlled and underwritten by the D.C. Republican establishment.
Chris West, whom Hunt faces in Tuesday’s runoff, has referred to the political novice as his “out of state opponent.” One of Hunt’s primary opponents, Wayne Johnson, has sued, complaining that the political novice is receiving an unfair advantage through his frequent appearances on Fox News, which Hunt’s campaign denies. Fox didn’t return a message seeking comment.
In addition to Haley, Hunt has been endorsed by Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. In a statement, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who helped lead the charge to object to 2020 election results, called him a “rising star” with “courage.”
“He’s the hope,” Glenn said of Hunt. “I commend him for being willing to take that on. It’s not going to be easy.”
As the runoff neared, Hunt and his small team of volunteers canvassed a Columbus neighborhood of manicured lawns, dotted with American flags and signs celebrating the University of Georgia’s recent college football national championship. Hunt walked briskly from house to house, shaking hands with potential voters in the street and going a full 30 minutes before sweat even surfaced on his brow. (He wanted to canvass again after the rally but his wife, Ky, insisted he take a break, to the relief of his tired volunteers.)
“But will they accept you in south Columbus?” one voter asks, referring to a Black, less-affluent part of town where the median household brings in less than $24,000 a year.
“We’ve got to give them an alternative. And so we show up in the community,” he responded. “That’s going to be our fight. But I’m up for the challenge. … This election we’re going across racial lines, political lines, we’re getting everybody.”
Black Republicans have trouble being accepted within the party, struggling to prove their conservative ideological bona fides, said Rep. Byron Donalds, one of the two Black Republicans in the House. “You’ve got to work hard and do what’s necessary for you to be successful,” said Donalds, who represents a mostly White district in Florida. “Nobody’s going to give you anything in life. Forget politics,” he said, chuckling. “They’re definitely not going to give you anything in politics.”
Whatever hope Hunt has of winning may lie with voters like Farah Dewsbury, a 45-year-old Black Army veteran who has previously supported Bishop but voted for Hunt in the Republican primary.
“I thought he was a fresh face,” she said. “I love the fact that Jeremy is a Black conservative because there’s a notion amongst most minorities that because you’re Black, you’re going to be a Democrat.”