ATLANTA – As former President Donald Trump sought to lay blame for his 2020 election loss, Georgia’s secretary of state emerged as one of his main targets. Now, with a Trump-endorsed challenger in the Republican primary, Brad Raffensperger is fighting to keep his job.
The secretary of state emerged from relative obscurity into the national spotlight when he insisted that Georgia’s election had been accurate and secure, and refused to bend to pressure from Trump to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state. Raffensperger says he’s running for reelection based on his record of integrity as a principled conservative.
“I’ve shown that I’ll stand and make the hard decisions and I’ll do what is right, and that’s what I’m called to do,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
Months after Raffensperger certified Biden’s victory, Georgia U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, a conservative Trump loyalist and former pastor, announced he would run against Raffensperger in the May 24 Republican primary and quickly secured the former president’s endorsement. Two others — former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and former county Probate and Magistrate Judge T.J. Hudson — are also challenging Raffensperger from the right.
It’s hardly surprising that Raffensperger has drawn primary challengers, Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said, noting that polls have shown many Republican voters in Georgia believe there was widespread voter fraud and question the 2020 election results.
“His role in terms of standing up to Trump, while earning him some respect nationally, certainly doesn’t necessarily garner any sort of plaudits from the Trump wing of the Republican party in the state,” she said.
State and federal officials, including Trump’s own attorney general, have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. But that hasn't stopped the proliferation of conspiracy theories and false claims.
Trump endorsed Raffensperger during a general election runoff in 2018. But as Georgia’s presidential votes were counted, recounted and recounted again — and even after the results were certified — the president unleashed his fury. He called the secretary of state an “enemy of the people” and vowed to campaign against him. In a now-infamous Jan. 2, 2021, phone call, Trump pressed Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to shift the election outcome in his favor.
But Trump wasn’t the only Republican to turn on Raffensperger. Then-U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, facing a January 2021 runoff election they ultimately lost to Democratic challengers, called on the secretary of state to resign. Georgia GOP Party Chairman David Shafer has repeatedly disparaged Raffensperger's handling of the 2020 election.
Raffensperger has pushed back on the narrative that the election was stolen, citing investigations that have found no widespread fraud and the many unsuccessful lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies.
“Me and all my other friends on the right side of the aisle were disappointed,” Raffensperger said. “But yup, those were the numbers. President Trump did come up short.”
Prominent Republicans have continued to criticize Raffensperger, citing a legal settlement and emergency election measures put in place because of the pandemic. In a sweeping election overhaul passed last year, Republican lawmakers stripped the secretary of state of his chairmanship and voting power on the State Election Board.
In Georgia and elsewhere, Raffensperger also won praise — including from some Democrats — for standing up to the president and others in his party. But Emory professor Gillespie noted that the law didn't leave him much choice: “Morally, ethically, legally, he did the right thing.”
When voting rights activist and Democratic candidate for Georgia governor Stacey Abrams appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” just after the recording of the call between Trump and Raffensperger was leaked in January 2021, she cautioned against celebrating Raffensperger.
“Lionizing Brad Raffensperger is a bit wrongheaded,” she said. “This man is not defending the right of voters. He’s defending an election that he ran.”
Abrams has often accused Raffensperger and other Republicans of suppressing voting rights, particularly for people of color. The secretary of state has responded by asserting that Democrats' claims of voter suppression are as harmful as claims by Trump and his supporters that the 2020 election was stolen.
Although challengers to incumbents don’t typically fare well in primaries, the committed party voters who show up for such contests could favor Hice, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.
“The fact that Trump remains an important factor for a lot of Republicans and that he has put his stamp of approval on a challenger does enhance Hice’s prospects,” Bullock said.
Hice has been raising more money than Raffensperger in recent months, bringing in just over $1 million in the reporting period that ended Jan. 31, compared with Raffensperger's $322,000. But Hice has been spending money faster, ending the period with about $648,000, compared with Raffensperger's $513,000. Belle Isle, who lost to Raffensperger in the Republican primary in 2018, raised more than $212,000 during the period and had about $112,000 on hand. Hudson reported raising $26,000 and had about $7,500 in the bank.
Raffensperger wasn’t the only Georgia official to draw Trump’s ire for refusing to interfere with the state’s election results. Trump has also vowed vengeance against Gov. Brian Kemp, endorsing former senator Perdue in the Republican primary in that race.
But Kemp may be in a better position to fend off a Trump-backed challenge by emphasizing economic achievements or other parts of his job, Gillespie said.
“It’s harder for Brad Raffensperger to run away because elections are his job,” she said. “So if people are incensed by the results of the 2020 election and how it was handled, he’s going to be the one that’s going to bear the brunt of that criticism amongst Republicans.”
Although the secretary of state has other responsibilities, including corporate registration and professional licensing, the role of chief elections officer gets the most attention.
Hice, who supported a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden's victory in Georgia and other states and voted against his Electoral College victory, has embraced unproven allegations of voter fraud. He told the AP recently, "I believe if we had an accurate count, I believe Trump won Georgia.”
Raffensperger dismisses attacks from people, including his primary opponents, who question his handling of the 2020 election: “I’m standing on the truth. They’re standing on lies. The truth always wins.”