MCDONOUGH, Ga. (AP) — Nearly a month after his preferred candidate for governor in Georgia was defeated by more than 50 points, former President Donald Trump has an opportunity next week to demonstrate he still has some sway in this onetime Republican stronghold.
A runoff election for a U.S. House seat east of Atlanta pits the Trump-backed Vernon Jones against Mike Collins, the son of a former congressman.
The winner will advance to the November general election against the Democratic nominee, also to be decided in the runoff being held Tuesday. The Jones-Collins winner will be the heavy favorite in this district drawn to elect a Republican. With that in mind, both Jones and Collins have pledged allegiance to Trump, who remains popular among the party’s voters.
Jones, an attention-seeking, bombastic presence with a long trail of enemies, is fond of calling himself the “Black Donald Trump." Collins, who owns a trucking company is plenty Trump-like as well, promoting himself as an outsider businessman as he drives an 18-wheel truck to campaign appearances.
But it's Jones who has Trump's official backing, something he constantly reminds audiences.
“I’m Trump vetted, I’m Trump trusted and I’m Trump endorsed,” Jones told Henry County Republicans in the Atlanta suburb of McDonough last week. “I don’t have to pretend I was with President Trump. ... I held the line for President Trump. And I’m not backing off President Trump.”
Collins narrowly led Jones in the eight-candidate primary on May 24. But neither cleared the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. About 112,000 people participated in the primary, but the turnout probably will be much lower next week, when Republicans have no statewide runoffs on the ballot.
Jones shot to prominence in Republican circles as a lifelong Democrat who endorsed Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020. He has supported Trump’s false claims of election fraud and said, "I have left the plantation,” when he switched parties in 2021.
He jumped into the congressional race in a district where he has never lived after Trump asked him to abandon a run for governor. Trump was futilely trying to clear the path to the nomination for former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was blown out by incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp. As part of the deal, Trump endorsed Jones for Congress.
As DeKalb County's elected CEO, Jones faced investigations of an expensive security detail, and a woman accused Jones of raping her in late 2004. She dropped the charges, but never recanted. Jones said the sexual encounter was consensual.
Collins has been handing out rape whistles to keep the allegation fresh. On Tuesday, Jones filed a police report claiming Collins was encouraging violence against him after Collins tweeted a picture of a gun and the campaign's anti-Jones whistle.
Jones oversaw hundreds of millions in capital projects as CEO, but a special grand jury later alleged he was part of an endemic culture of “incompetence, patronage, fraud and cronyism.” He later lost races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and county sheriff.
“Vernon Jones is a con man," Collins said in a June 6 debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. "I think that’s what we’re getting down to — it’s just a trust issue.”
Jones has been replying with a television ad featuring voters under the tagline “I trust Vernon.” He's also criticized Collins for lending his campaign $465,000 after the federal government forgave $920,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans to his privately held trucking company. There’s nothing unusual about the loans being forgiven, but Jones says Collins effectively dumped federal money into his campaign. Collins denies doing so, saying it helped him keep people employed.
“He is the crook," Jones said in the debate. "He stole hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”
Jones also calls Collins a “RINO," or Republican in name only, saying Collins sent out a mailer in a failed 2014 primary bid for Congress asking Democrats to vote for him. Collins calls that claim a “lie” and a “hit job.”
All six of the other primary candidates who did not make the runoff have endorsed Collins, the son of former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, who died in 2018.
Other officials who have endorsed Collins include 11 county sheriffs and 17 state lawmakers. State Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican, said he is backing Collins in part because Jones was ineffective in the legislature and had rocky relationships with other lawmakers.
“I don’t think he will be effective," Strickland said. "I think Vernon is a show. We know that from working with him in the legislature.”
Jones is not without significant backing, though. Besides Trump, the National Rifle Association has given Jones the nod over Collins. And some party activists give him good reviews.
“I love his story. I love his fight. I love his tenacity,” said Ortavia Taylor of Stockbridge, who attended the Henry County meeting.
Jones has pushed an outlandish plan to install Trump as speaker of the U.S. House and then impeach, convict and remove President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris from office. That, in theory, would put Trump in position to return to the White House because the House speaker follows the vice president in line for the presidency.
He has embraced other conspiracies, including the false claim that Georgia's election was stolen from Trump, saying Congress should investigate. The results in Georgia were certified after a trio of recounts, including one partially done by hand. They all affirmed Biden’s victory.
Jones has hosted showings of “2000 Mules,” a film that purports to use cellphone location data to show Democratic operatives were paid to illegally collect and drop off ballots. Experts say the claims made in the movie are fatally flawed.
Collins, too, has shown support for such claims, attending a screening, but the issue has featured less prominently in his campaign.
There are few other policy differences between the candidates, although Jones has tried to position himself as even more anti-abortion and even more pro-gun than his opponent.
While Jones has the Trump endorsement, Collins is arguing that with his outsider positioning, he is Trump enough. He told Henry County Republicans they should choose him “if you’re looking for somebody that is truly, unapologetically pro-Trump, an America First agenda candidate, conservative to the core, an outsider never been elected anything in my life.”
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Jeff Amy, The Associated Press