Not everyone in state political circles is convinced Raffensperger’s political plight is so grim. Some still see a path to reelection, despite the serious resistance within his own party.
Either way, as the GOP forges its post-Trump era identity, Raffensperger’s reelection campaign is emerging as one of the earliest and most contentious test cases for the direction of the party. At issue is more than just whether critics of the former president can succeed in the party. It’s whether a Republican who rejects the lie that the last election was stolen has any chance of winning another one.
The answer in Georgia, so far, is that it will be exceedingly difficult — if not flat-out impossible.
It is a remarkable turn of events for a conventional Republican politician whose down-ballot election in 2018 went largely unnoticed outside his own state. Yet after refusing to buckle to Donald Trump’s requests to change the state’s vote count and feuding with Trump over the former president’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud, Raffensperger’s reelection campaign is unfolding, improbably, as one of the most consequential of the election cycle — with implications for the GOP in every state and at all levels of government.
Jason Shepherd, the chair of the Republican Party in Cobb County, Georgia, said he has friends who are “completely uninvolved in politics” who tell him “there is no way they are going to vote to reelect Raffensperger.”
That sentiment, he said, is coming from “the type of person you’re almost surprised they know the name of the secretary of state.”
“I don’t want to say there’s zero chance, but at this point right now, it’s nearly impossible to find anyone in the party who supports the reelection of [Raffensperger],” he said.
Raffensperger still has more than a year to turn it around. But he is running up against the heavy weight of GOP’s election fraud orthodoxy. Earlier this week, Rep. Jody Hice, a defender of Trump’s effort to overturn the election, announced he’s running with Trump’s endorsement to unseat Raffensperger. And the Georgia Republican Party isn’t exactly sitting on the sidelines.
The state executive committee publicly called this week on Raffensperger to repudiate his staff for misquoting Trump’s words in a December phone call in which Trump urged a Georgia elections official to find “dishonesty” in the vote in an attempt to reverse the election results.
The party said Raffensperger has “dodged repeated attempts” by committee members to discuss the issue with him.
Closer to home, Raffensperger failed this past weekend to get Republicans in his own precinct to elect him as a delegate to his county’s upcoming Republican Party convention, said Stewart Bragg, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. After Raffensperger wrote a letter asking to be elected, no one at the precinct meeting moved to nominate him, Bragg said.
In a statement, the chair of the Fulton County Republican Party, Trey Kelly, said he was unaware of any letter from Raffensperger, adding that, “like many others who did not attend Saturday, he was not added to the delegate or alternate list for the county convention.” A person close to Raffensperger also denied that he sent a letter seeking election.
His representatives otherwise declined to comment for this story, pointing to Raffensperger’s past public statements.
Raffensperger’s official responsibilities have also been targeted by Republicans in the state. On Thursday, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law, signed by Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, that removes the secretary of state as the state election board chair — to be replaced by a person approved by the state legislature.
The law, in effect, hands control of the five-person board over to the state legislature: Two other members on the board are picked by the respective legislative chambers. The law also gives the state election board the ability to suspend county election officials, who are replaced by an individual picked by the board.
Raffensperger is not without a fan base. In fact, he’s the most popular Republican in Georgia, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January — even more than Kemp or Trump.
But that feat is in large part because Raffensperger is admired by Democrats, who viewed him as a truth-telling, elections administration equivalent of Dr. Anthony Fauci after the November vote. Nearly 45 percent of Republicans in the state disapprove of Raffensperger’s performance, according to the poll.
Raffensperger has been a focal point for Trump and his supporters since shortly after the presidential election. Even as early as November, he said he was preparing for a primary challenge because of how angry some in the state may be with him.
In an election cycle where secretary of state races are likely to get a near-unprecedented amount of attention, Georgia’s may be the most competitive. Not only is Raffensperger facing a Trump-backed primary challenger, Democrats will be gunning for the office in 2022 as well, enraged by the Republicans in the legislature pushing through bills that will restrict voter access to the polls and emboldened by the party’s successes in the state’s last election.
Raffensperger has joined the chorus of Republicans across the country in opposing H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, congressional Democrats’ sweeping piece of legislation that would drastically remake most aspects of federal elections, penning an op-ed in USA Today on Friday that says the bill makes “reckless demands of Georgia’s elections system.”
At the same time, Raffensperger has been harshly critical of the falsehoods about the 2020 election promoted by Trump and embraced by Hice, saying voters will punish Hice because of it.
“We saw in January what Georgia voters will do to candidates who use that rhetoric,” he said in a statement shortly after Hice got into the race, alluding to the two GOP Senate runoff losses. “His recklessness is matched by his fecklessness as a congressman. Georgia Republicans seeking a candidate who’s accomplished nothing now have one.”
Hice also isn’t Raffensperger’s only primary challenger. David Belle Isle, the former mayor of Alpharetta who Raffensperger handily defeated in a 2018 runoff for the nomination, also announced he was running again.
Raffensperger’s newly acquired national profile means the outcome will reverberate far beyond Georgia, where Republican primaries are emerging as litmus tests on questions about voter fraud and fealty to Trump’s grievances.
“Raffensperger is not just somebody running in a Republican primary,” said Sarah Longwell, the founder of the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump group working to promote non-MAGA Republicans. “He is being primaried by Jody Hice, who is somebody who has been an election truther.”
The umbrella organization that RAP belongs to has pledged a $50 million campaign to back Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, and a sister organization of RAP previously ran ads defending Raffensperger’s handling of an election, saying he ran “a “textbook election under extraordinary circumstances.”
But the issue will likely play out across the country, Longwell said. “In a Republican primary — like the Ohio Senate primary, for example — I suspect the challengers are going to be MAGA, or more MAGA, or mega MAGA. … You can definitely see that people will try to outmatch each other by the extent to which they will play up the election being stolen.”
The national primary environment appears more favorable to Republicans running on the idea that the election was illegitimate, with a majority of Republican voters saying the November election wasn’t free or fair.
Still, it’s possible that in Raffensperger’s race and elsewhere, the electorate’s view of 2020 will shift by 2022 — especially as more information undercutting Trump’s voter fraud claims materializes about the election. Pointing to a recent court filing from Sidney Powell — the former Trump lawyer who recently conceded that “no reasonable person” would believe what she had been saying was factual — Georgia Republican John Cowan said he is not yet sure how he will vote in Raffensperger’s primary.
The secretary of state “admirably stood up to power, the-guy-in-Tiananmen-Square kind of stuff,” said Cowan, a neurosurgeon who ran against Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in a 2020 House primary and is considering running against her again next year.
Right now, Cowan said Raffensperger is getting “scapegoated.”
But “when the anger and the passion subsides,” he said, “I think people are going to say, ‘Gosh, we just got beat.’ And unless we want to get beat again, we’ve got to get our act together.”