Trump’s Revenge Begins in Georgia

In standing up to Donald Trump, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger likely sacrificed a second term.

Photographs of the candidates in Georgia's secretary-of-state race, Jody Hice and Brad Raffensperger
Tom Williams/ CQ-Roll Call / Getty ; Brynn Anderson / AP ; The Atlantic

To many Americans, Brad Raffensperger is one of the heroes of the 2020 election. Georgia’s secretary of state, who is a conservative Republican, refused then-President Donald Trump’s direct pleas to “find” the votes that would overturn his defeat in the state. “I’ve shown that I’m willing to stand in the gap,” Raffensperger told me last week, “and I’ll make sure that we have honest elections.”

As he bids for a second term as Georgia’s top election administrator, however, Raffensperger is not so much standing in the gap as he is falling through it. A Trump loyalist in Congress, Representative Jody Hice, is challenging him in a primary with the former president’s enthusiastic endorsement, and the state Republican Party voted last month to censure him over his handling of the election. GOP strategists in the state give Raffensperger no chance of prevailing in next May’s primary.

“I would literally bet my house on it. He’s not going to win it,” Jay Williams, a Republican consultant in Georgia unaffiliated with either candidate, told me. Another operative, speaking anonymously to avoid conflicts in the race, offered a similar assessment: “His goose was cooked the day Georgia’s presidential-election margin was 12,000 votes and Trump turned on him.”

Besides the one at Foggy Bottom, secretaries of state are not supposed to be famous. The job at the state level isn’t high-stakes diplomacy but mostly mundane administration. Before Raffensperger, the last secretary of state to find the national spotlight was Katherine Harris, whose handling (or mishandling, depending on one’s perspective) of the disputed 2000 election in Florida earned her a few punch lines on Saturday Night Live and two unremarkable terms in Congress.

Yet after Trump’s postelection attempt to cling to power last year—and his ongoing and rancorous claims that the election was stolen—the office has taken on added importance. “Secretaries of state will be and are the defenders of democracy,” Jena Griswold, Colorado’s secretary of state, told me. Griswold is the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a national campaign organization that is significantly expanding its operations this year as the party gears up for a handful of crucial elections in 2022. The secretaries elected next year will oversee elections in 2024, and Democrats are prioritizing races in presidential battlegrounds such as Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona, where the incumbent, Democrat Katie Hobbs, is forgoing a reelection bid to run for governor instead. The association’s budget in 2020 was about $2 million; next year, it’s hoping to spend as much as $10 million—a sign of how urgent Democrats believe these races are.

With its higher profile, the secretary-of-state post has become more attractive to ambitious politicians in both parties. The declared candidates in Arizona include a Republican state legislator who was photographed near the Capitol after rioters breached police lines on January 6. Two other GOP contenders have introduced bills to restrict voting options and to make it easier for the state legislature to overturn presidential-election results.

In Georgia, Hice is making the unusual decision to give up a safe seat in the House that he’s held for four terms to challenge Raffensperger—taking the opposite path that Harris did nearly two decades ago. A former Baptist pastor and talk-radio host, Hice joined the House Freedom Caucus in Congress but hasn’t drawn much of a following beyond his district, east of Atlanta. He told me he had given no thought to running for secretary of state before last fall. “This has never, ever, ever been on my radar,” he said. “It just came about due to the horrendous debacle of our election.”

Hice denied that Trump asked him to run, but he has acknowledged that he called the former president before he declared his candidacy, and on the morning he launched his campaign, Trump issued a gushing statement offering his “complete and total endorsement.” Hice faults Raffensperger for his decision to send every registered Georgia voter an application for an absentee ballot before the primary last year—a decision Democrats viewed as a no-brainer during the pandemic.

Hice, who voted with a majority of House Republicans to object to the certification of presidential-election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, boasted to me that he had been “the tip of the spear” in raising alarms about Georgia’s 2020 election and opposing Democratic efforts to expand voter access. I asked whether he believed that Trump had won the state last year. “I certainly have my opinions about that,” he replied. Pressed as to what those opinions were, he said, “We need to investigate and find out. I do not believe we had fair elections in Georgia.” One of Hice’s supporters, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, was more direct in saying that Trump had won. “I believe he did,” she told me. “I’ve lived in Georgia my entire life. I know my state, and it has not turned blue.”

Perhaps the most important question in the primary is how Hice would respond if he were secretary of state in 2024, and Trump, running to reclaim the White House, tried to pressure him to overturn another Democratic win in Georgia. Would he stand firm as Raffensperger did? “I do not think Jody Hice is anybody’s puppet,” Representative Austin Scott, another Georgia Republican who has endorsed Hice, told me. The GOP operative I spoke with wasn’t so sure, however. “There’s no evidence to suggest that he’d be his own man,” the strategist said. “There’s no evidence to suggest that he’d think for himself.” When I put the question to Hice, he didn’t answer directly. Trump “wouldn't need to call me,” he said. “I will abide by the law and abide by the Constitution, and when there are issues of potential fraud, and mismanagement in elections, we will investigate. That's the job of the secretary of state, which Raffensperger did not do.”

If he’s elected, Hice may find there’s not much he can legally do after ballots are cast. Much of the office’s power comes before an election, in overseeing the vote. Afterward, the secretary is merely responsible for certifying ballots counted in local jurisdictions and overseeing recounts if needed. Moreover, as part of Georgia’s contentious new election law, Republicans in the state legislature have already stripped the secretary of state of some of the office’s remaining powers by replacing him as chair of the state election board with a leader appointed by lawmakers.

Democrats, fresh off their victories in the presidential race and Georgia’s two Senate runoffs in January, are hoping to win the secretary of state’s office for themselves and foreclose postelection shenanigans. Bee Nguyen, a state legislator who holds the Atlanta seat once occupied by Stacey Abrams, declared her candidacy in May and is seen as a formidable contender. The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen would be the first Asian American elected to statewide political office in Georgia; she took the lead in knocking down Trump’s false charges about the election late last year. Abrams, who is likely to make a second run for governor, and the newly elected Senator Raphael Warnock could both be on the ballot, helping to juice Democratic turnout.

Hice undoubtedly offers Democrats a richer target than Raffensperger, and his vulnerability in a general election goes beyond the perception that he would do Trump’s bidding. The congressman wrote a 2012 book that contains long, derogatory passages about gays and Muslims; he compares the push for same-sex marriage to incest and bestiality and asserts that Islam “does not deserve First Amendment protection.” In 2014, he told a local newspaper that he didn’t have a problem with women running for office “as long as the woman’s within the authority of her husband.” More recently, he was one of 21 House Republicans who voted against awarding congressional gold medals to the Capitol Police who protected lawmakers during the attack on January 6.

Raffensperger is trying to get back in his party’s good graces by defending the new law that Republican legislators passed in response to an election that he insists was “fair and honest.” The law bars the secretary of state from sending out mass applications for absentee ballots in the way that he did last year, and even Raffensperger says the provisions stripping power from his office are “retribution” for how he handled the election fallout. Still, he says he supports the law overall, particularly its requirement of photo IDs for mailed ballots. “When there’s a bill that’s 100 pages, there’ll be some items that you don’t support,” Raffensperger told me. He’s criticized the Biden administration for challenging the law in court, joining other Republicans in accusing Abrams and her allies of spreading “misinformation and lies.”

“I’m the most conservative secretary of state that’s ever been elected in Georgia,” he told me, as if to remind the voters who elected him in 2018 of why they did. Raffensperger endorsed Trump early in his bid for the presidency; while serving in the state legislature, Raffensperger was a right-wing irritant of the establishment party leaders.

For the moment, though, none of that matters, and he cuts a lonely figure in Georgia. Targeted by Trump and abandoned by the state party, Raffensperger has no prominent Republicans publicly in his corner, nor even much of a campaign apparatus. When I emailed the address listed on his campaign website to ask for an interview, my inquiry did not go to a volunteer or a spokesperson but to Raffensperger himself, who answered directly. The most revealing part of our half-hour conversation came at the end, when I asked him who else could speak on his behalf—surrogates, allies, etc. Raffensperger paused for a few seconds and then chuckled nervously. His supporters, he explained, “are very private people” who probably wouldn’t want to talk publicly. He produced no names.