RUTLEDGE, Ga. — There are few things politicians love more than creating jobs and cutting ribbons.
But what if those jobs are on the wrong side of the culture war?
Plans to build a massive electric vehicle factory in rural Georgia have divided Republicans ahead of their primary next week, with Donald Trump-backed David Perdue criticizing rival Gov. Brian Kemp for offering taxpayer incentives to attract a “George Soros-owned woke corporation whose stated purpose is to combat climate change.”
Rivian, the well-capitalized electric pickup truck company that had one of the biggest IPOs in history six months ago, wants to spend $5 billion on a new assembly plant on farmland outside Atlanta. The mammoth factory will create 7,500 jobs and produce up to 400,000 cars a year in what officials say is the largest economic development project in Georgia’s history.
But the price tag for the deal was $1.5 billion in taxpayer incentives. And Perdue, a former U.S. senator, and other Republicans say Kemp cut a bad deal with a bad company.
“It’s a woke California company whose mission is to turn the world green,” Perdue said this month while stumping with local activists trying to stop the plant. “They aren’t interested in this part of the country. They just want to make money off of us.”
Vernon Jones, the Trump-backed candidate in a crowded Republican primary for the area’s open congressional seat, wrote on Facebook that Rivian is “a company whose corporate attitude is seemingly inconsistent with Georgia values.” He pointed to the company’s vaccine mandate for employees and its “large focus on diversity & inclusion; including transgender benefits.”
In another post, Jones wrote, “Rivian needs to pull out, and Kemp needs to be voted out.”
The controversy exposes a growing rift inside the GOP between its traditional pro-business wing, embodied by Kemp, and an ascendent populist wing, embodied by Perdue, that’s as quick to fight companies like Disney and Delta as it is Democrats for opposing conservative social policy.
It also underscores the challenge the entire country will face in transitioning to a greener economy. Even climate-friendly projects can negatively impact local environments, and communities and not-in-my-backyard opposition can be fierce and politicized.
“There are legitimate reasons to criticize this, but I don’t know what George Soros has to do with it,” said J.C. Bradbury, a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University who has studied Georgia economic development plans. “You’re just connecting it to him like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
Soros, the liberal Jewish billionaire who is often cast as a boogeyman in conservative circles, owns a small minority stake in Rivian, while larger investors include Amazon, BlackRock and T. Rowe Price, among others.
Opposition to the Rivian plant has become a key part of Perdue’s closing message, even if it is unlikely to be enough to save his sputtering campaign.
He’s visited the proposed site twice, hammered Kemp on the deal during their debate, spoken against it on national TV and ran a TV ad suggesting the plant was part of a corrupt deal between Kemp and Soros.
Linking Kemp to Soros could resonate with conservative voters in farther-flung parts of the state and outside of it, since the issue has gotten some attention in conservative media.
During a tele-rally for Perdue this month, Trump said, “I’m not surprised about George Soros getting all of this money from Kemp."
The pivot comes as Perdue seeks to catch Kemp in the polls and differentiate himself from the governor, whose only major apostasy was refusing to help Trump try to overturn the 2020 election. That issue helped put Kemp on Trump’s target list, but it has not been enough for Perdue to eat into Kemp’s consistent lead in polls.
Opposition to the plant also allows Perdue to tap into the vocal and well-organized opposition to the plant locally.
Anti-Rivian yard signs have sprouted up like wildflowers around the rolling green fields where the automaker hopes to soon break ground on a project so massive that it will straddle two counties and be bigger than the Pentagon.
Amazon wants to switch its delivery fleet to clean electric vehicles, starting with an order for 100,000 zero-pollution Rivian tucks that could be made in Georgia. But many locals in the heavily Republican area see the project as devastating to their environment.
“Sherman and his troops destroyed our community. Now this supposedly green company is coming to destroy it again,” said JoEllen Artz, the president of the grassroots No2Rivian group, which says it has raised over $250,000 and hired Atlanta lawyers to help wage their battle. “We want to keep it just like it is.”
In Rutledge, a bucolic one-intersection town that has served as a backdrop for films like “Selma,” the old red caboose that now houses a lunch counter was abuzz with questions last week about what Rivian would mean for locals — their drinking water, their traffic, their schools, their dark skies prized by astronomers at Georgia State University's nearby observatory, their rural way of life.
Several residents said they moved here to escape the inexorable growth of Atlanta and now worry the Rivian plant will usher in more development that will eventually swallow their hayfields and antebellum mansions, thanks to the area’s combination of cheap land and proximity to an interstate and a rail line.
Keith Wilson, who is running for the Morgan County Board of Commissioners to try to stop the Rivian plant, said he found no supporters for it after knocking on more than 800 doors in his campaign. The county’s unemployment rate is just 2 percent, he said, so the company should take their jobs where they’re needed.
“Perdue is going to get a lot of votes here,” Wilson said. “I think it might be enough to put him over the top in the primary. I really do.”
Local opponents like Artz and Wilson say their opposition has nothing to do with the fact that Rivian is from California and makes electric vehicles and say the opposition movement includes people of all political stripes.
But they’re happy to have a champion in Perdue — especially since he could potentially halt the project if elected governor.
“People write to me and say, ‘You know Perdue is just using you for an issue?” Artz said. “And I say, ‘And?’”