The new executive director of the Georgia GOP is a 21-year-old part-time college student who is already something of a legend in state Republican circles. She turned down her admission to an Ivy League school to help pull off a string of improbable GOP victories.
Carmen Foskey has a broad portfolio that includes outreach to millennials. She’s setting up a youth advisory council in her new job to make inroads to college campuses, recruit candidates and improve social media tactics at a time when the national GOP brand is taking a beating.
The messenger is fitting. At 16, she was an intern for U.S. Rep. Austin Scott. At 17, she was a staffer for David Perdue’s U.S. Senate campaign, balancing finals at Warner Robins High School with field operations work.
She was in the throes of the campaign when the letter from Brown University, her dream school, arrived. But two weeks later, she called the school admissions office to defer her acceptance. She toiled in Louisiana and Philadelphia on Republican causes, then returned to Georgia to help run state Rep. Shaw Blackmon’s campaign. That’s when she decided to permanently turn it down.
The huge debt load was a major factor. Something else also spurred her decision: A letter she received from a student at the university who had read about her work in GOP campaigns and wanted “to find the time to sit down with me to help me see the light.”
As cliché as it sounds, she said, it was her “tipping point.” Plus, she adds, “I felt like I could stick it to him otherwise.”
Not too long later, consultants were looking for a hungry operative to run the campaign of a GOP businessman running for Savannah mayor. Eddie DeLoach was a former county commissioner who was defeated in his 2012 bid for county chair. Savannah hadn’t elected a Republican-leaning mayor since 1991.
She got a call from strategist Mark Rountree to run DeLoach’s campaign, and a day later she was in Savannah, living in a cottage behind DeLoach’s home. She was 19.
The number of homicides in Savannah had nearly doubled over the past year, making it the city’s bloodiest since 1991, and violent crime grew by more than 20 percent. She grasped quickly that the race would be won or lost on law-and-order issues.
DeLoach’s campaign hoisted a billboard above incumbent Mayor Edna Jackson’s re-election headquarters with a running ticker of the number of gunshots detected in the city. At the first debate, when asked to name the city’s top three challenges, he answered succinctly: crime, crime and crime.
His 2015 victory in the books, Foskey moved to Athens to enroll in the University of Georgia. Every afternoon after classes, she drove about an hour to Gainesville to manage Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins’s re-election bid against a field of conservatives, including ex-Rep. Paul Broun, looking to outflank him from the right.
“She was willing to do what very few young operatives were willing to do – the grunt work,” said Collins, who would win handily. “She’ll put up the signs, she’ll knock on the doors – but she also understands the numbers. She is the whole deal.”
Every evening, she would drive home past the reveling students in downtown Athens without a second glance. She never attended a fall football game at Sanford Stadium. Before the year was out, she was chief-of-staff for the Student Government Association’s president.
“I’ve never had that desire to seek normalcy. It’s just not who I am,” she said. “I knew what my niche was and I enjoyed it. And that niche is winning. And conservative politics fits that well.”
Brian Robinson, a veteran political strategist, taught a public affairs communications course at UGA last year and would spot Foskey in the crowd even though she wasn’t on the roster. He’s been in politics for much of Foskey’s life, he said, but if she were teaching a class “I’d sit in and see what I can learn.”
“There’s one thing that makes me leery of Carmen,” he said. “She didn’t enjoy her time as a student at the University of Georgia – where Jesus will attend school when he returns – and didn’t go to football games. That’s not right; that’s not OK. And someone needs to say it.”
She moved to Buckhead recently to get closer to the white-hot center of Georgia politics and take online courses at UGA. That’s where she met John Watson, the lobbyist and longtime political operative running for GOP chair.
The party’s reputation was deeply damaged and it was facing the double-whammy of mounting debt and lawsuits accusing the then-chair of racial discrimination. Plus, Watson’s close ties to the state’s political establishment seemed to give him little chance in a party vote dominated by grassroots folks.
About 30 minutes later, she agreed to join him.
“It is an odd day in Georgia politics when a lobbyist who is not a traditional grassroots activist can win the chairmanship,” she said of Watson’s eventual victory. “But when you know John, and you know his integrity and honesty, and his obsession with winning it makes sense.”
The Georgia GOP is beginning to pare down its costs, line up fundraisers and get a handle on the litigation. Foskey, for now, wears many hats, including serving as the party’s political director and spokeswoman.
Oh, and she’s getting hitched: She was engaged to a fellow Republican operative in May and the wedding is set for October. A young woman in a hurry, indeed.
Her friends privately worry that she’ll burn out. She said she won’t let that happen.
“I’m a keep-my-head-down kind of person who just lets my credentials speak for themselves,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that hard work beats strategy. It doesn’t matter how grand the strategy is, if there’s not someone there to execute it.”