Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who thwarted Donald Trump’s efforts to steal the state’s election in 2020, won his Republican primary on Tuesday night, delivering a thorough rebuke to the former president who spent the last year trying to unseat him.
NBC, CNN and other major networks projected early Wednesday morning that Raffensperger had defeated Rep. Jody Hice, a conservative House member who twice voted against the certification of the 2020 election results in Congress and received Trump’s endorsement in the secretary of state race, and two other candidates.
With more than 95% of ballots counted, Raffensperger had won roughly 52% of vote, just enough to cross the majority threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.
He will proceed to a general election in which Democrats who cheered his efforts to thwart Trump will hope to unseat a Republican they still criticize for supporting new laws that restrict voting rights and grant Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature more partisan power over the state’s elections.
Raffensperger’s refusal to “find” nearly 12,000 nonexistent votes to turn President Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia into a win for Trump made him the chief target of the former president’s Make America Great Again movement within Georgia. Hice launched his primary bid in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, alleged that Raffensperger had “compromised” Georgia’s elections, and immediately received Trump’s blessing.
Trump held multiple rallies in Georgia over the last year, appearing with Hice and other candidates he endorsed in statewide primary challenges to Georgia incumbents, including former Sen. David Perdue, who sought to unseat GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, and John Gordon, who ran against Attorney General Chris Carr.
Early in the race, many Georgia Republicans considered Raffensperger especially vulnerable to a primary fight, particularly one from such a close ally to Trump. Hice was a relentless purveyor of the lie that Georgia’s election had been rife with fraud and stolen from the president, despite multiple reviews, audits and investigations finding no evidence to back those claims.
On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Hice tweeted that GOP congressional efforts to overturn the election in Congress amounted to a “1776 moment” for the country. He also participated in strategic discussions about how to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to toss out legitimate electoral college votes during the congressional certification process. He ultimately voted to contest the election results twice on Jan. 6, and was among the 147 Republicans who challenged the results even after a riotous mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol that day.
Democrats and democracy experts saw the GOP secretary of state primary as a crucial fight for the future of American elections, and its democracy as a whole, given that a Hice victory would put him one step away from becoming the top elections official in a key swing state ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
But unlike other election deniers who have prevailed in recent Republican primaries, Hice fell short in Georgia, where voters ultimately rejected all three of the Trump-backed candidates running against GOP incumbents who helped thwart the former president’s efforts to overturn his election loss in the state. The losses suggest that at least in Georgia, Trump’s “big lie” about the 2020 election is not powerful enough to defeat the trio of candidates who have consistently refuted it.
Hice won counties across Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, which he has represented since 2015. But he was demolished in nearly every other part of the state, including and especially within the Atlanta metro area, where Raffensperger racked up huge margins that pushed him across the 50% threshold necessary to avoid a runoff.
Raffensperger may have benefited from Georgia’s open primary system on Tuesday: During early voting, an estimated 7% of ballots cast in this year’s GOP races were submitted by Georgians who had participated in the Democratic primaries in 2020, according to an analysis conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At least some of those voters appeared motivated to thwart Hice and the other Trump-backed candidates, but said they would support Democrats again in the fall.
“Democrats that want to send a clear message to David Perdue and Donald Trump are voting against all of Trump’s endorsements,” Larry Weiner, a Democrat who voted in the GOP primary, told the Journal-Constitution. “Come November, we vote for Democrats.”
He may also have prevailed simply because of his inherent advantages as an incumbent, and because other primaries received more attention: One pre-election poll found that support for Hice increased sharply ― from 30% to 60% ― once voters learned that he had Trump’s backing, suggesting that he may have won had he been able to improve his name identification among Georgia voters before Tuesday’s vote.
The defeat may be a significant one for Trump’s MAGA movement, but it will not put an end to the threats Republicans pose to the country’s electoral system: Hice-like candidates who have contested or questioned the 2020 election results are pursuing secretary of state positions in other major battleground states, including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, where GOP primaries have not yet been held.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, meanwhile, last week won the Republican gubernatorial primary in his state. Mastriano, who sought to undermine Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, bussed supporters to Washington on Jan. 6 and was in attendance at the protest that turned into an insurrection that afternoon, would assume control of a key swing state ahead of the 2024 election should he win in November. He would also have the power to appoint a similar election-denying conspiracy theorist as Pennsylvania’s secretary of state.
Despite his rebuke of Trump in 2020, Raffensperger will likely face a tough reelection fight in November against whomever emerges from a crowded Democratic primary.
Georgia Democrats are eager to replicate their success from two years ago, when Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992 and Sens. Raphael Warnock (D) and Jon Ossoff (D) prevailed in a pair of runoff contests.
With Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at the top of the ticket, Democrats believe they have a shot to sweep Republicans out of major statewide offices, and they have keyed on the secretary of state race as a way to protect and expand voting rights after Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a sweeping new elections law that restricted ballot access and created new election-related crimes in 2021.
Raffensperger, who before 2020 supported prior efforts to create new restrictions on voting in Georgia, also backed SB 202, as the new law was known. And he has defended it from claims that it will it will disproportionately impact Black voters, disabled Georgians and other minority communities that helped spur Democratic victories in 2020.
Democrats see that law, one of the first of more than 30 restrictive pieces of legislation Republican legislatures passed across the country last year, as an extension of the false fraud claims Trump and his allies made about the previous election, and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot have vowed to defeat Republicans who supported it.
Raffensperger has also refused to totally break from Trump, despite the fact that his spurning of the former president led to death threats against his family and other election officials across the state. In an interview with HuffPost last year, Raffensperger did not answer a question about whether he would vote for Trump if he runs for president again in 2024.
And although the national environment appears poor for Democrats, the party’s voters in Georgia seem motivated: They turned out in high numbers for early voting ahead of Tuesday’s primary, even though the top two races on the party’s ticket were uncontested.
Voting rights were one of the animating factors for voters who spoke to HuffPost outside of Atlanta polling precincts last week, many of whom were determined to overcome the barriers SB 202 placed in front of them ― and to defeat the Republicans, Raffensperger included, who helped create them.