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A year ago, Leo Smith thought Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had no chance to win a GOP primary contest against Rep. Jody Hice, who twice voted to contest the results of the 2020 election in Congress and had former President Donald Trump’s endorsement.
He was far from alone: By then, Raffensperger had become Public Enemy No. 1 of former President Donald Trump and his supporters, after refusing to heed Trump’s calls that he “find” the nearly 12,000 nonexistent votes necessary to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.
Along with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, Raffensperger had certified President Joe Biden as the winner of the state’s contest. He stood by investigations, audits and reviews of the election that found no evidence of the fraud and irregularities Trump and his allies claimed had marred the integrity of the race. Republicans in the Georgia legislature stripped Raffensperger of some powers, and his approval fell into the teens.
“Who in their right mind would think somebody at 14% approval stands a chance?” Smith, an Atlanta-based GOP political consultant, quipped Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday, Raffensperger unexpectedly prevailed in the GOP secretary of state primary, easily defeating Hice. More than that, Raffensperger won a clear majority of votes, avoiding a head-to-head runoff with his election-denying opponent. He was part of a trio of incumbent Republicans — including Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr — who emergedvictorious over candidates Trump had handpicked to challenge them.
The resounding defeat of Trump’s ticket and the “big lie” that they had pushed about Georgia’s 2020 election offered proof, Smith argued Wednesday, that “when democracy is the candidate, perhaps democracy has a chance.”
Hice’s loss means a rampant election denier won’t serve as Georgia’s top elections official or oversee the 2024 presidential contest, when Trump may be on the ballot again. He won’t have the power to endlessly relitigate 2020, or to shape how the 2024 race is managed. Hice won’t have the ability to deliver a death knell to democracy in Georgia by actively attempting to steal an election his preferred candidate doesn’t win, or by refusing to certify it — a fear that has steadily mounted as candidates like Hice have lined up to seek secretary of state positions across the country.
The results may have also demonstrated some limits of Trump’s power, particularly in races against incumbent lawmakers who’ve refuted his lies, investigated his claims and steadfastly refused to back down in the face of his attacks.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger won his Republican primary contest against Trump-backed election denier Rep. Jody Hice on Tuesday. The upset offered hope that Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 election, which Raffensperger refused to help him steal, isn't as powerful as the former president believes. (Photo: via Associated Press)
Many of those celebrating Raffensperger’s victory remain wary of premature proclamations that the “big lie” suffered a major blow in Georgia on Tuesday night.
Republicans like Smith still believe Trump is the party’s most influential figure, and that his conspiracies remain a powerful force in GOP politics. It’s plausible that this victory by Raffensperger — who didn’t just denounce the former president’s scheme but actively thwarted it — will embolden similar candidates to take stronger stands against both Trump and his conspiracies. But it’s also more than possible that Georgia will prove an outlier: At least in competitive secretary of state primaries, there simply aren’t many Republican candidates like Raffensperger left.
For all the positive vibes Raffensperger’s victory generated for the country’s beleaguered democracy, how he won is alarming in its own way: He used his advantages as an incumbent to swamp an overmatched opponent who assumed Trump’s endorsement was a golden ticket to the general election, and ran a poor campaign as a result. He benefited from an open primary system that allowed Democratic voters to help push him across the line. And he threaded the narrowest of GOP primary needles between Trump’s outright lies and conservative desires to bolster “election integrity,” the euphemism Republicans have used to enact numerous laws that curb voting rights over the last year.
The good news is that Hice is no longer in position to possibly take control of Georgia’s elections. The bad news is that, at least in Republican primaries, the combination of factors that resulted in Hice’s loss on Tuesday may not be replicable anywhere else candidates like him are running, seemingly making it inevitable that GOP election deniers will pose a direct threat to the electoral systems of several other battleground states come November.
‘I Don’t Know Who She Is’
Former Sen. David Perdue, in retrospect, hardly stood a chance against Kemp, a popular Republican governor whom voters never saw as “anti-Trump,” even if Trump did. John Gordon, the candidate Trump endorsed in the attorney general primary, was similarly disadvantaged: He ran a bare-bones campaign that never truly dented Carr’s support among anyone but some Republican activists, despite a barrage of spending in the race’s closing stages.
But Hice had a shot, even if targeting a well-known incumbent was a tougher task than he perhaps assumed it would be.
Hice launched his campaign in March 2021, just four months after Raffensperger initially refused Trump’s pleas to help him steal Georgia, and two months after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
A member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, Hice was a devoted Trumper who tweeted that the congressional certification vote offered a “1776 moment” to the country’s right wing. He voted to contest the election results the morning of Jan. 6, then returned to the Capitol after the insurrection and voted to contest them again. Testimony granted to the House committee investigating the insurrection later revealed that Hice had participated in strategic discussions about how to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election.
Hice immediately won Trump’s endorsement, said Raffensperger had “compromised” the integrity of Georgia’s elections, and cemented his status as the front-runner: Over the first three months of the race, he outraised every Republican candidate in the Georgia secretary of state race and most other secretary of state candidates nationwide, drawing money from conservative billionaires eager to end Raffensperger’s career.
Rep. Jody Hice could've benefited from the power of Trump's endorsement, polls in Georgia suggested. But he seemingly believed Trump's backing would be enough to propel him to victory, and ran what many Georgia GOP consultants considered a poor campaign as a result. (Photo: Sean Rayford via Getty Images)
Similar candidates have launched bids for secretary of state positions in Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and other swing states, inspiring fears among Democrats and democracy experts that they are plotting to undermine the 2024 election, or to refuse to accept any result they don’t like.
Hice joined a coalition of such candidates, Vice News reported last year. Its purpose, according to Nevada secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, was to “control the election system” and “take back our country.”
It’s unclear how organized the group ever was. But as right-wing candidates like him plotted a national strategy, Hice seemingly forgot about Georgia.
Early on, Hice spent more time fundraising in Washington than he did meeting with grassroots Republican groups and conservative activists he’d need to build a robust statewide campaign, Smith said. He was largely absent from Georgia’s airwaves, especially late in the race, when Raffensperger’s ads played across the state. And he failed to blanket voters with mailers that might’ve introduced him to Georgians he’d never represented in Congress: Smith recalled that he received only one piece of mail from Hice’s campaign, even though he lives just outside of Atlanta, in Georgia’s most populous region.
That proved a massive mistake for a marginal congressman who represents a safe Republican seat in northeastern Georgia and had never campaigned statewide.
It allowed Raffensperger to define the terms of the race, and to paint himself as the true defender of “election integrity” in Georgia. In ads and interviews, Raffensperger cited his support for Senate Bill 202, the sweeping elections overhaul passed by Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature last year that placed new restrictions on voting, as evidence.
“I’m the first Secretary of State to ban ballot harvesting, implement photo ID for all forms of voting and the first to conduct a full citizenship check audit of Georgia’s voter rolls,” he said on Facebook in May, after an interview with Fox News. (“Ballot harvesting” is the term Republicans use to describe the practice of returning absentee ballots on the behalf of other voters, a practice some states ban and others allow and that is often especially beneficial for elderly voters and Native American tribes. There’s no evidence linking it to fraud in the states where it’s often used.)
Raffensperger pointedly refuted conspiracies about voter fraud during the interview with Fox News, and said that he had both upheld “the law and the constitution” and investigated every claim of fraud and found no evidence to support them.
“Jody Hice has been running around the state of Georgia for 18 months now lying,” Raffensperger told Fox News. “He says, ‘Well, voters don’t have confidence in the system.’ It’s because you’ve been lying.”
He later hammered Hice as an inexperienced and ineffective congressman who hadn’t “passed one bill to secure our elections” while in Washington. He argued that Hice had a “record of neglect” when it came to protecting “election integrity.” In May, he called on Hice to sign a pledge to back a Georgia constitutional amendment that would bar undocumented immigrants from voting in the state’s elections.
Jody Hice did not connect with Georgia voters with anything other than, ‘I’m Trump-endorsed.' He gave no evidence that he even had an inkling of what the secretary of state’s job is.Leo Smith, Georgia Republican consultant
Raffensperger also ran TV ads touting himself as the secretary of state who had stopped Democratic gubernatorial nominee and Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams from pushing to allow undocumented immigrants to vote, positioning himself as a bulwark against Georgia conservatives’ most-hated Democrat.
He argued that Democrats, voting rights groups, and the Department of Justice — which sued Georgia over the new voting law, alleging that it unconstitutionally discriminates against Black Georgians and other vulnerable voters — were distorting both the purpose and impact of SB 202.
“He was very much speaking to the conservative base,” said Brian Robinson, a GOP consultant and longtime adviser to former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. “And even though many elements of the conservative base reviled him and gave him a hostile reaction, he still accepted every invitation and went all over the state.”
“He never lost his temper or got off message with the right-wing media who were attacking him in front of his face, and he never danced to the sound of applause of the left-wing media and mainstream media who adored him,” Robinson said. “He didn’t fall for the trap of basking in the glory of Trump haters’ praise, and instead focused on his own base.”
Hice, meanwhile, failed to outline a vision for how he’d approach the job beyond his insistence that the 2020 election had been stolen, and that he’d prevent a repeat in 2024.
“Jody Hice did not connect with Georgia voters with anything other than, ‘I’m Trump-endorsed,’” Smith said. “He gave no evidence that he even had an inkling of what the secretary of state’s job is.”
Hice’s apparent absence from the race also allowed Raffensperger, who became a nationally recognized figure in the wake of the 2020 election, to enjoy a massive name identification advantage. This spring, Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist who started the group Republican Voters Against Trump, asked Georgia voters about Hice in a focus group.
“Everyone was like, ’I don’t know who she is,’” Longwell said on a recent podcast.
Hice's relative absence from the election, especially in its closing stages, allowed Raffensperger to define the race to voters, and paint the incumbent as the true defender of conservative priorities even though he had thwarted Trump. (Photo: Bill Clark via Getty Images)
Raffensperger may have received a boost from Kemp’s popularity at the top of the Republican ticket. Trump, by contrast, returned to Georgia just once in 2022, for a March event that took place more than a month before the start of early voting.
Hice appeared at the rally, but Trump barely mentioned his candidacy otherwise. The former president ultimately backed away from Georgia late in the race, when it became clear that Perdue would take a shellacking from Kemp in the gubernatorial primary.
“Because Trump has stayed out of the state, he hasn’t been reminding people relentlessly about who Brad Raffensperger is or what he did,” Longwell said in the podcast episode, which was released before the primary ended.
In the end, Georgians didn’t know who Hice was or that he was Trump’s preferred candidate, either — a dynamic that potentially swung the race.
In April, a University of Georgia poll found that Hice held a meager lead over Raffensperger, with support from roughly 30% of GOP voters. But when voters were told which candidate had Trump’s endorsement, his support rose to 60% – a 30-point jump that would’ve allowed Hice to win the race outright if it had translated to the final vote.
Instead, Hice finished with 33% and struggled everywhere outside his current congressional district, even in some of Georgia’s most conservative corners. In a congressional district that handed far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R) a 50-point win, Hice lost by 20.
Trump did play one major and undeniable role in the state: He appears to have mobilized Democrats to turn out in droves to help defeat his preferred candidates.
Georgia has open primaries that allow voters to cast ballots in the either party’s contest, and during early voting, an estimated 7% of the GOP electorate was made up of Georgians who had voted in the Democratic primary two years ago, according to an analysis from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Many of those voters chose GOP ballots to help defeat Trump’s picks, they told the newspaper.
Some Georgia pollsters estimate that roughly 40,000 prior Democratic voters likely cast ballots in the GOP primary. If most voted for Raffensperger, who finished with 52% of the vote, it was likely enough to push him across the majority threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.
“Without the help of Democrats in that race, he’s headed to a runoff where Trump’s guy has a serious chance,” said Chris Huttman, a Democratic strategist at the Atlanta-based consulting firm 20/20 Insight.
What’s Next For The ‘Big Lie’
Tuesday’s primary result raises numerous questions about the Georgia race: What if Republicans had fielded a “big lie” candidate who could take advantage of the power that polls suggested Trump’s endorsement still had? And what if Democrats had a competitive gubernatorial primary that kept thousands of their voters from potentially boosting Raffensperger?
Would the “big lie” candidate have prevailed?
Democrats are reluctant to celebrate, particularly because of Senate Bill 202, the package of voting restrictions Georgia Republicans passed last year, and Raffensperger’s use of it to bolster his conservative credentials during the primary.
To them, the law is merely another outgrowth of the baseless voter fraud claims Trump pushed in 2020, which made the Georgia primary “a choice between someone who tried to steal an American presidency and someone who pushed to pass one of the largest voter disenfranchisement packages in the nation,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the head of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, said in an interview.
Raffensperger may have been the preferable primary option on Tuesday. But a secretary of state “who uses his position to make it harder for voters to cast a ballot,” she argued, “is not good for this country.”
Even with Hice out of the race, Democrats like state Rep. Bee Nguyen — who advanced to a runoff in Tuesday's Democratic secretary of state primary — will likely make the case that Raffensperger's support for new voting restrictions is just an extension of Trump's election conspiracies. (Photo: Derek White via Getty Images)
Even Raffensperger — conscious that he needs Hice voters to win reelection in November, and that many Republican base voters still want Trump-like, or at least Trump-friendly, candidates to win — was hesitant to frame Tuesday as a victory over the man who’d demanded that he steal Georgia just 19 months ago. Asked if it was a major loss for Trump, Raffensperger instead characterized the primary as “a direct compliment to the goodness of my fellow Georgians.”
Trump’s influence, meanwhile, showed up in other races that didn’t feature well-known incumbents. Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones, who won Trump’s endorsement, currently holds a commanding lead in the GOP lieutenant governor primary, an open seat contest. Republicans Jake Evans and former state Rep. Vernon Jones, Trump’s picks in two Georgia congressional primaries, both advanced to runoffs on Tuesday after campaigning on voter fraud conspiracies.
And even the trio of Republican incumbents who refuted Trump’s election lies never fully broke with him: Raffensperger, for instance, last year did not answer a HuffPost question about whether he would vote for Trump again in 2024 if he runs for president.
“Absolutely the president has major influence” in Georgia, Smith said. “Even those who [Trump] didn’t endorse, they still ran a campaign that showed some fealty to the president.”
Already, that has proven powerful enough elsewhere, especially in races that don’t include well-heeled incumbents capable of staving off Trump and his band of anti-democratic cranks.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano — who attempted to overturn the 2020 election in his state, bused supporters to Washington for the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, and was outside the Capitol as that day’s insurrection unfolded — last week won a GOP gubernatorial primary. And election deniers seem primed to win, or at least closely contest, secretary of state contests in several key battleground states later this year.
Mastriano would appoint Pennsylvania’s secretary of state should he win in November. “Big lie” candidates are running in GOP secretary of state primaries in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. There are Republicans, like Nevada GOP secretary of state candidate Kristopher Dahir, who have refuted those claims, but none of them enjoy Raffensperger’s inherent advantages as an incumbent.
In Minnesota, secretary of state candidate Kim Crockett, who has spread conspiracy theories about 2020, has already won the state GOP’s endorsement ahead of an August primary. The Michigan GOP endorsed Kristina Karamo, who has questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 results, in its secretary of state race.
Democrats, meanwhile, argue that Georgia’s November elections remain a referendum of a version of the “big lie” even after Kemp’s, Raffensperger’s and Carr’s victories.
All three officials, Democrats note, may have refuted Trump’s lies, but they also all supported and have since defended SB 202, the package of voting restrictions, new election-related crimes and provisions that could allow the GOP to exert unprecedented partisan powers over Georgia’s elections.
“Secretary of State Raffensperger may have done his job in 2020, but the very least a secretary of state can do is not steal an election from the American people,” Griswold said.
Raffensperger, she said, “has done tremendous damage to voting rights while in office.” (Republicans counter that record turnout for the primaries proves the law didn’t suppress votes, although making it harder to vote on the margins was clearly its intent.)
Democrats will need a runoff to decide the outcome of their primary: State Rep. Bee Nguyen, who had the endorsement of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and numerous prominent progressive groups, led all candidates with 44% of the vote, short of the majority needed to clinch the nomination.
Nguyen rose to prominence by pushing back on Trump’s conspiracy theories after the 2020 election, and has emerged as a major voice in the state’s voting rights movement. Former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, Nguyen’s opponent in the runoff, also ran on pledges to protect and expand voting rights. Democrats’ unified focus on the issue all but ensures that Raffensperger’s support for SB 202, and the bevy of Republican laws that followed it nationwide, will remain a major sticking point in this race and others like it across the country.
“We know that the ‘big lie’ is being used to suppress the vote,” Griswold said. “We know that lies are being used to take away Americans’ freedoms. And the ‘big lie’ was one of the reasons SB 202 was passed.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.