A few months ago, if you asked the median Georgia election-watcher about Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s chances in his upcoming Republican primary, they’d likely have responded (depending on their own feelings) with a rueful wince or a smirk: Yeah, that guy’s dead in the water.
You wouldn’t have to ask why. When Raffensperger became a household name in late 2020, it wasn’t under circumstances designed to endear him to the Republican electorate. In the wake of the presidential election, as then-President Donald Trump thundered that the vote had been rigged in his opponent’s favor in Georgia (and many other states), Raffensperger was perhaps the most prominent state-level Republican official to take Trump’s lies head-on. And as Trump has labored to turn the 2022 midterms into his own personal 2020 revenge tour, he has made Raffensperger a key target, recruiting four-term congressman and former pastor Rep. Jody Hice to return to the state to try to unseat him. Hice has modestly outraised Raffensperger in the contest, ending the latest filing period with $100,000 more cash on hand after outspending the incumbent $1.7 million to $1.3 million.
“Unlike the current Georgia Secretary of State, Jody leads out front with integrity,” Trump said in a statement last year. “Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!”
Yet as primary day arrives, there’s something strange underfoot in Georgia. Recent polls have found Raffensperger and Hice neck-and-neck, with a plurality of the electorate still undecided in the four-way contest.
It’s not as though Republicans don’t care what Trump thinks anymore. Races in other states in recent weeks have provided ample evidence of the continuing power of the MAGA endorsement: J.D. Vance’s recent win in Ohio, Ted Budd’s in North Carolina, Mehmet Oz’s strong showing in Pennsylvania.
Yet in Georgia, where Trump’s desire for revenge has burned hottest, the trend has seemingly been in the opposite direction. His handpicked candidate to take on Gov. Brian Kemp, former Sen. David Perdue, has collapsed down the stretch even as Trump has traveled to the state to rally in his support and cut multiple videos denouncing the supposed RINOs running state government.
Still, Raffensperger was always going to have a harder time than Kemp escaping Trump’s lash. For Kemp, the 2020 election was one controversy during a term in which he gave Republicans much else to like; as secretary of state, Raffensperger didn’t have much to do with passing anti-abortion legislation, more permissive gun laws, and the like. His oversight of the 2020 election in Georgia is the first and last thing for which most Georgians know him.
During Trump’s attempt to steal the election, Kemp was largely a passive obstacle to his wishes—rebuffing his requests, for instance, to call the legislature back into session to select a new slate of presidential electors, on the grounds that he did not have the legal authority to do so.
Raffensperger, by contrast, took Trump’s stolen-election narrative head-on—repeatedly debunking claims of widespread fraud in Georgia. His reputation as a Trump foil was sealed when officials in his office recorded a call—the entirety of which was later leaked to the press—in which Trump pressed him to “find 11,780 votes.” Raffensperger repeatedly told the president he had his facts wrong.
On January 6, 2021—the day of the congressional count certifying Biden’s electoral win, and the day of the Capitol riot during which Trump supporters attempted to disrupt that count—Raffensperger sent an open letter to those Georgia officials who had pledged to vote against certifying the result, refuting point by point the Trump campaign’s allegations of fraud concerning Dominion voting machines, absentee ballot malfeasance, and supposed votes cast by ineligible voters.
“The result of the presidential election is not what I preferred, but the result from Georgia is accurate,” Raffensperger wrote in the letter. “Indeed, this body, and both of you, have already voted to accept the results of Georgia’s elections by voting to seat the elected Congressional representatives from Georgia.”
All this has forced Raffensperger to campaign for reelection on the grounds Trump and Hice have chosen—state voting laws and Raffensperger’s oversight of the 2020 election. He got an assist in 2021 when Georgia Republicans passed a new voting law, SB 202, which gave him the opportunity to reassert his GOP bona fides in the face of withering national press coverage and President Joe Biden’s denunciations of the law as “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” (As The Morning Dispatch covered at the time, SB 202 was criticized for rolling back some emergency pandemic voting expansions, but it actually made voting easier for the majority of Georgians.)
Some state Republicans praise Raffensperger for continuing the fight and making his case to Republican voters in his state—as opposed to, say, cashing out for a media gig in front of the more sympathetic national audience who valorized him in 2020.
“It would’ve been so easy, so understandable, if he had just stuck his head in the sand, not run for reelection, and just headed down to the Kennedy School and accepted his profile in courage and moved on,” Brian Robinson, a Georgia Republican consultant, told The Dispatch. “But he didn’t. And the way he’s speaking to people, as a conservative, isn’t for some sort of cynical political end. It’s who he is.”
That said, if Raffensperger does pull out a surprise win, it will be as much due to the mistakes of his opponents as it will be about his having run a tight campaign. The reality is that many voters going to the polls Tuesday won’t see the race as a head-to-head test between Trump and Raffensperger; they simply haven’t been following along to the political storylines that closely. A poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs last month found Hice leading Raffensperger by 8 points, 30-22, with 39 percent undecided. But the pollster also polled a second group of participants, this time revealing in the question that Trump had endorsed Hice. With that extra information, Hice jumped to a 44 point lead, with only 18 percent undecided.
So why hasn’t Trump’s endorsement of Hice slammed the door on Raffensperger? In part, experts say, it’s because Trump has diluted his own endorsement power in his zeal to sweep from office anyone whom he sees as being on Team Kemp. In all, Trump has endorsed 10 Republicans running in Georgia, many of whom, like Perdue and Hice, are waging primary challenges against Republican incumbents.
At times, this flood-the-zone approach has bordered on the absurd: At a Trump-Perdue rally in March, Patrick Witt, the Trump-endorsed candidate for the job of insurance commissioner, boasted to a vaguely nonplussed crowd that “I’m going to keep your insurance from going woke.”
Meanwhile, Trump has reserved the bulk of his ammunition to attack, not Raffensperger, but Kemp, whose failure to display loyalty Trump considered as unforgivable a sin as Raffensperger’s direct opposition. The task of educating voters that Trump picked Hice over Raffensperger, then, has largely fallen to Hice himself—who has long lagged Raffensperger in name recognition across the state.
Whether Raffensperger or Hice finishes in the lead today, it’s unlikely to be the end of the story. If no candidate exceeds 50 percent in a primary election, Georgia law stipulates that the top two vote-getters proceed to a runoff election in June. This arrangement would likely play to Hice’s advantage, giving him one more month to spread the gospel of Trump’s endorsement in his race—and giving Trump himself the opportunity to pivot to more direct attacks on Raffensperger, since Kemp is likely to defeat Perdue outright with no need for a runoff.
Even so, it’s remarkable that it’s even a real question: In 2022, can a Republican candidate whose primary calling card is having fought Trump over his stolen-election lies live to tell the tale?