Brad Raffensperger believes Republicans can win elections by promoting an “uplifting vision for the country.” The Georgia secretary of state is a national name because he pushed back on former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, and refused Trump’s repeated attempts to “find” votes to overturn the results.
Brad Raffensperger is also politically doomed.
He is seeking reelection in Georgia, where a crowded field of primary candidates have lined up to dethrone a man now considered public enemy No. 1 by adherents of the MAGA movement. Almost nobody thinks he can win.
“He’s dead in the water,” Jay Williams, a Georgia GOP consultant, told HuffPost.
“There is no way Brad Raffensperger can win the primary,” said Leo Smith, another longtime Republican strategist in the state.
Raffensperger’s pariah status is a blinking alert that the Republican Party has so completely morphed into a right-wing authoritarian political project that it cannot tolerate the presence of an elections official who defends the legitimacy of American elections. Republicans and Democrats in Georgia are already proceeding as though Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) ― who twice voted to contest the results of the 2020 election, tweeted that the Jan. 6 vote to challenge the certification of those results in Congress was a “1776 moment,” and unsurprisingly earned Trump’s endorsement ― will be the GOP nominee for Georgia’s secretary of state next year. (Hice deleted the “1776” tweet after Trump’s calls to challenge the election result drove supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol. His spokesperson later said the post was meant only to highlight his “electoral objection,” and that Hice condemned the riot itself.)
Raffensperger has amassed no major endorsements and has struggled to win even minimal support in straw polls at Republican events across Georgia, an unprecedented fall for an incumbent in a secretary of state race. Meanwhile, the state legislature, controlled by his own party, stripped him of his seat on the state election board for the 2022 election purely because he certified Trump’s loss.
In an interview with HuffPost in conjunction with the release of his book this week, Raffensperger expressed longing for his vision of the Republican Party of the past, describing his admiration for former presidents Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. He said he plans to “continue to just calmly and respectfully state what the facts are” about the 2020 election, and emphasized the need to listen to the other side of the aisle.
But don’t confuse him for a fair election crusader: Raffensperger is desperately trying to show that, despite last year’s apostasy, he agrees with the mainstream GOP principle that only Republicans should be allowed to win elections. He embraced the state legislature’s restrictive elections law that reduces voter access while allowing political partisans to purge local election boards and replace them as they see fit.
Raffensperger is openly campaigning for a partisan review panel to use the new law to purge the election board in Fulton County ― which is 44% Black, and which Joe Biden won with 76% of the vote ― and appoint a new director, likely one more ideologically aligned with Republicans. He has embraced the conspiratorial language that he once rejected, attacking the new Fulton County election board chair, Cathy Woolard, as a stooge of former (and likely future) Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, because Woolard previously worked for Abrams’ nonprofit Fair Fight Action.
“The reason why Brad Raffensperger is now equivocating is that he has to win a primary against a rabid Republican base that wants agreement with Trump and what they believe to have happened in the 2020 election,” Smith, the Republican strategist, said. “It seems a little Pollyannaish. But the fact is, he has no choice but to try to thread the needle.”
Raffensperger has likely calculated ― probably correctly ― that he must cast doubt on elections in Georgia, particularly those run in counties with large Black populations, in order to appeal to the rural white Republican base that believes Trump’s lies. But he needs to embrace these lies for the same reason he lacks credibility on them: He rejected Trump’s lies and certified Biden’s win. This situation is one of Raffensperger’s, and the Republican Party’s, own making.
Trump’s voter fraud lies did not emerge from nowhere. They were seeded by Republican politicians falsely alleging voter fraud by maligning Black, Latino, Native American and student voters for decades.
“We got all the complaints of ghetto grandmothers who didn’t have birth certificates and all that,” former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, said about the supposed need for strict voter identification when running for office in 2009. (He later apologized, saying his words were taken “out of context” and were “in no way meant to offend anyone.”)
Soon after Deal’s “ghetto grandmothers” comment, Brian Kemp ― today the governor, but at the time Georgia’s newly elected secretary of state ― indicted 12 Black activists and charged them with 120 felonies related to voter fraud. The Quitman 10+2, as the group of Black activists, most of them women, came to be called, successfully and legally organized Black residents in the city of Quitman to register and vote in elections for the first time, allowing Black candidates to win control of the school board. But Kemp alleged they did so illegally, based on testimony from local white residents who claimed fraud.
Republican politicians across Georgia touted the charges as proof that elections were corrupted with fraud, especially where the numbers of Black voters were growing. Kemp, in a preview of Trump, said at the time he was “fighting to protect the integrity of our elections.” But it turned out that the voter fraud allegations were fraudulent themselves. Only one of the 12 Quitman activists went to trial, where she was acquitted on all counts. Charges were dropped against the other 11, one of whom had died by that point. The only “crime” they’d committed was successfully organizing a politically dormant Black population.
The Quitman witch hunt foreshadowed Trump’s complaints, years later, about too many Black people voting in cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
Raffensperger earned Trump’s endorsement during the runoff election in 2018, which he ultimately won. Throughout that race, Raffensperger promised to “protect” and strengthen voter ID laws in an effort to ensure that “only American citizens can vote” ― a nod to the racist and xenophobic conspiracies that Trump, Kemp and other Republicans had peddled about undocumented immigrants tainting American elections.
“People like Brad were slow on the uptake on the warning signs. If you’re going to swing punches about how our party and our grassroots need to be concerned about people providing misinformation, the best way to swing that punch is by providing correct information.”
Raffensperger also pledged to continue the purges Kemp had used to remove hundreds of thousands of names from Georgia’s voter rolls ― a practice that Kemp argued was meant to clear the registrations of people who hadn’t recently cast ballots, but that inevitably ensnared thousands of voters who’d planned on participating in the 2018 election.
By then, it was obvious that the GOP’s conspiracies risked swallowing the party whole and pushing American democracy to the brink. Trump had openly suggested he might not recognize the results of the 2016 election if he lost, and repeatedly spread lies about fraud even after he won. It was clear even when Raffensperger took office in 2019 that Trump was laying the groundwork to claim that the only possible way he could lose the 2020 election would be if it was stolen from him.
The raft of voting changes made during the pandemic, and the inevitable counting delays associated with them, only made that easier. But instead of educating voters about how elections work, why 2020 would be different, the fact that there has been no widespread fraud in any recent American election, or what election officials do to correct mistakes and audit official results, Republicans like Raffensperger stood idly by.
“People like Brad were slow on the uptake on the warning signs,” Smith said. “If you’re going to swing punches about how our party and our grassroots need to be concerned about people providing misinformation, the best way to swing that punch is by providing correct information.”
Instead, Raffensperger tried to have it both ways. He played the diligent elections bureaucrat while also fearmongering about nonexistent voter fraud. He appointed a 12-member absentee ballot fraud task force made up almost entirely of white Republican prosecutors, an act affirming the very fears of nonexistent voter fraud that fed Trump’s lies. And he reached a settlement with Abrams ― a former Georgia state representative ― and the state Democratic Party over allegations that Black and Latino voters had been illegally discriminated against in past elections. The settlement made it easier for voters to fix errors on absentee ballots after submission, and ended up prompting more lies from Trump after he lost Georgia in 2020.
Many Republican voters didn’t approve of Raffensperger’s agreement with Abrams, whose 2018 gubernatorial campaign and ongoing efforts to register voters and turn Georgia blue made her the archenemy of the Georgia GOP. They also opposed Raffensperger’s decision to mail out absentee ballots en masse ahead of the 2020 election, one of a litany of changes he introduced to make voting safer and easier during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If Trump had won, he’d still have problems with the base,” Williams, the GOP consultant, said.
Raffensperger’s decision to challenge Trump, and the perception that he leaked the details of the infamous phone call where Trump demanded that he help “find” the votes necessary to overturn the election, only angered Republican voters even more.
“He’s not big enough to go out and start pushing people around, and when he tried to do that, it didn’t work very well,” Williams said. “He’s not a big enough dog to get into that fight. He’s an obscure secretary of state getting in a fight with a very popular, with the base, former president ... I think there are Republicans who agree that the election wasn’t stolen that still don’t like what he did.”
But even if that’s true, the base’s angst is rooted in the idea that Raffensperger made it too easy to vote during the 2020 elections, especially for Black and otherwise marginalized Georgians. Combine that with the widespread belief that the election was stolen from Trump ― a lie that nearly half of all Republican voters accept as gospel ― and the result is the present-day Republican Party, which appears set to nominate adherents of the Big Lie in major races across the country next year.
A Dangerous Replacement
Hice, the congressman who threw his hat into the secretary of state race this year, is the most prominent of those election skeptics running for office in Georgia. A former Baptist minister, Hice launched his campaign by arguing that Raffensperger and other Republicans had “compromised” the integrity of Georgia’s elections and shown insufficient deference to Trump.
If Hice wins, Georgia’s top elections office would be manned by someone who believes, or at least says he believes, the 2020 election was stolen. And despite the Georgia GOP’s efforts to weaken the role of secretary of state — a ploy, some Democrats believe, to hamstring the office in case a Democrat wins it — Hice would assume tremendous power over how elections are administered, and the authority to decide how and whether to review or certify them afterward.
After the 2024 presidential election, Hice, as Georgia’s secretary of state, could assert without evidence that there was voter fraud in Fulton County or any other Democratic-leaning county. According to Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, this could lead the state legislature to advance an alternative slate of electors to Congress, as Trump wanted them to do in 2020.
Hice could also use the new election law to take over more county election boards and insert supporters of Trump’s lies to run them, letting them do everything in their power to depress turnout. He could engage in voter purges or other acts to make it harder for certain communities to vote. Or he could potentially alter the votes of certain counties, as Trump wanted Raffensperger to do.
“It makes me nervous to have someone who either actually believes or states that he believes that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump to have that person running an election going forward,” Hasen said.
But just as Raffensperger has found himself stuck in a Catch-22 in his bid for reelection, the Republican Party may have gotten itself into a similar jam.
“This fight among Republicans over the big lie could end up backfiring in a state like Georgia,” Hasen said.
Abrams is likely to run for governor against Kemp again next year, with the full power of her fearsome turnout machine boosting both her and the likely Democratic secretary of state nominee, state Rep. Bee Nguyen. If Hice is on the ballot, opposition to him will certainly attract more attention and money to support Nguyen. And Hice is likely to do worse in the areas where he needs to overperform, like the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs, than a candidate like Raffensperger. These are the counties where former GOP Sen. David Perdue, while still losing, outperformed Trump in 2020.
“In the end, it could benefit Democrats, but it seems like a very dangerous possibility that someone like Hice could be elected,” Hasen said. “You’ve got to be careful what you wish for.”
Democrats, though, aren’t wishing for a fight with Hice so much as they are hoping Georgia survives it. That Raffensperger’s last-minute stand against Trump rendered him persona non grata in the GOP proves “that Republicans are doubling down on the big lie, and that they haven’t learned from 2020 or 2021 that that is not what Georgians want,” Nguyen told HuffPost this week. With the GOP seemingly set to nominate Hice in place of Raffensperger, that leaves only one question for Georgians ahead of next year’s election.
“Are you for democracy, or are you against democracy?” Nguyen said. “It’s no longer a partisan issue, it’s not about being a Republican or a Democrat or an independent. It’s about preserving the sanctity of our country. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a really dangerous place for a long time.”
Raffensperger, in all likelihood, will be left to tend to a life upended by the 2020 election and his decision not to go along with Trump’s plot. In his book, he writes about the impact that Trump’s lies had on his family’s security. He notes that Trump called him “an enemy of the people,” and says it’s “a phrase once used in Nazi Germany against Jews and in the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin against anyone who disagreed with him.”
Raffensperger writes explicitly that he thinks Trump was threatening him, in order to pressure him to “find” votes to make the former president the artificial victor in Georgia.
“I felt then ― and still believe today ― that this was a threat,” he writes. “Others obviously thought so, too, because some of Trump’s more radical followers have responded as if it was their duty to carry out this threat.”
He ends his book with a call for better people to run for office. “If we don’t have people of the highest character run for elected office, we will continue to fight disinformation, misinformation, and outright deception, and the end result will be an erosion of public trust,” he writes. “We need the people who hold public office to continually strive for the noble causes in life with noble behavior.”
Given all that, HuffPost asked, would Raffensperger vote for Trump if he’s the 2024 Republican presidential nominee?
Raffensperger didn’t answer for a few seconds.
“I think that’s so far out in the future, I don’t even think he’s announced he’s running yet,” he finally said. “So let’s circle back and talk about that in the future.”
Clarification: Language has been amended to note that Hice’s tweet about a “1776 moment” referred to the Jan. 6 vote to challenge the certification of the 2020 election results, and not to the Washington, D.C., rally that preceded the violence at the Capitol.