Over lunch at the Taco House in Calhoun, Georgia, Scott Tidwell promised Matt Barton his support.
It was Jan. 9, the day after a special election for the Georgia House District 5 seat. Barton had finished second among six candidates, putting him in a runoff with top vote-getter Jesse Vaughn.
Now it was endorsement time. Tidwell, who finished third in the special election with 21 percent of the vote, grilled Barton on just how conservative he was. So did Larry Massey Jr., who finished fourth. By the end of the meal, Tidwell and Massey agreed to back Barton.
They posed for pictures, shaking hands in the restaurant parking lot. They said they would post on Facebook, encouraging their supporters to pick Barton over Vaughn.
Five days passed. Tidwell posted. He announced his support — for Vaughn.
"I just really wasn't satisfied with the answers [Barton] gave" over lunch, Tidwell told the Times Free Press on Monday. "It just didn't seem like he was in touch with the issues as close as he ought to be."
In response, Barton said, "I'm not sure how in touch he wanted me to be with the issues."
He said their conversation was "pretty simple."
"All the standard Republican ideals that we hold to — right to life. I answered openly and honestly everything he asked me. He asked me all sorts of questions. I'm pretty sure the only question he didn't ask me was what my Social Security number was."
House District 5 Special Election results (Jan. 8)
Jesse Vaughn: 1,187 (33.7 percent)
Matt Barton: 816 (23.2 percent)
Scott Tidwell: 739 (21 percent)
Larry Massey Jr.: 524 (14.9 percent)
Brian Rosser: 163 (4.6 percent)
Steve Cochran: 92 (2.6 percent)
The runoff to replace state Rep. John Meadows, who died in November, is Feb. 5. Both candidates expect a low turnout in the district in Gordon and Murray counties. People only cast 3,523 ballots in the six-candidate race, about 12 percent of registered voters. Even tiny swings can make a big difference, so endorsements matter.
Tidwell said he was earnest about endorsing Barton in the days after their meeting. But he felt bad he hadn't even talked to Vaughn. He was turned off by Vaughn's past, his campaign for the state House in 2002 as a Democrat, as well as his time chairing the county's Democratic party.
Vaughn said he switched parties in the mid-2000s, casting his final vote in a Democratic primary in 2008. He has voted Republican ever since and has received financial support from key conservatives, including Speaker of the House David Ralston.
Tidwell said that after his lunch with Barton he talked on the phone with Vaughn and was impressed with his depth of policy knowledge. He attended a Jan. 10 forum featuring the two candidates and believed Vaughn was the clear winner.
"He had a change of heart," Tidwell said of Vaughn's party switch. "And he definitely knows the issues and where he stands as a Republican. I really felt he was sincere."
Massey, for his part, is standing by his endorsement of Barton. He doesn't trust Vaughn's change, even if it happened more than 10 years ago.
"I was surprised," Massey said of Tidwell, "given the lunch and the questions we had for Matt. I have some other words, but I'll just say I was surprised. It's a pretty big flip, I would say."
"Matt's a lifelong conservative Republican," he added. "Matt will go to Atlanta and vote the values of our district. Jesse's a lifelong Democrat with a recent conversion to conservatism. Jesse has splashed himself with conservative water but has yet to take the plunge."
Tidwell said he backed Vaughn over a couple of key issues. Vaughn is a staunch pro-life candidate who has since been endorsed by the Georgia Right to Life PAC. (The PAC previously endorsed Tidwell.) Vaughn also supports gradually eliminating the state income tax and allowing gun owners to carry their weapons without a permit.
He also supports religious freedom legislation.
Former Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed such a bill in 2015 after it passed the General Assembly. Business leaders and gay rights groups have criticized the legislation, saying it allows for discrimination.
But in his successful campaign for governor last year, Gov. Brian Kemp said he would support a version of the legislation that is the same as the federal law President Bill Clinton signed in 1993. (Kemp has not addressed the issue publicly since taking office.)
Vaughn said he believes such legislation is important because could be forced to sign marriage certificates and perform weddings for gay couples even if they didn't want to.
"We're talking about giving pastors the protection of the right to say no," he said. "That is something that would be protected under the Constitution but something we have to be clear about because pastors could find themselves in a difficult position."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.