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Georgia GOP primary for secretary of state to test endurance of Trump's election lie

Brad Raffensperger, who refused to bow to pressure from Trump to overturn the 2020 election, faces Rep. Jody Hice., who voted to undo the will of his state’s voters in that race.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga,, attends a news conference at the Capitol on Feb. 28, 2022.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., shown in February, is in his fourth term in the House.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

When Georgia voters go to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in the Republican secretary of state primary, it won’t just be a GOP nominee in a down-ballot race they’re choosing.

The very future of how elections in the state are overseen — and, possibly, the machinery of how the next president is chosen — will be at stake, too.

That’s because the primary race itself — between Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Rep. Jody Hice — pits an incumbent who refused to bow to pressure from Donald Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election in his favor and a challenger who voted to undo the will of his state’s voters.

It’s just one of many races across the country — for secretary of state, attorney general and governor — in which candidates who wrongly claim Trump won the 2020 election are now running for jobs that have the power to sway the outcome of future races.

The Georgia GOP primary contest in particular is all but certain to have a direct effect on the 2024 presidential race, because the state, which the Democratic presidential nominee won in 2020 for the first time in 28 years, will again be a critical battleground.

“It’s a big choice and it goes beyond just this race. It could have large ramifications,” said Alan Abramowitz, an expert on Georgia elections and a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “If you have Hice in there and you have another close [presidential] race in 2024 and something similar happens, the implication is that he will be much more amenable to doing whatever he can to make sure that you don’t have a repeat of 2020.”

“If Trump is running again and close, Hice will find those 11,800 votes,” Abramowitz added, referring to Trump's infamous January 2021 phone call to Raffensperger that ultimately spurred Trump's involvement in the race. 

Raffensperger has been caught in the crosshairs of Trump and his allies since President Joe Biden emerged victorious in the state, winning by just under 11,800 votes. After the election, Trump repeatedly clung to numerous conspiracy theories claiming that he’d won Georgia, blaming Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican facing a primary challenge Tuesday, for the loss — even as his various theories were debunked, with multiple recounts and audits confirming the outcome.

Trump, who also lost court challenges over the results, called Raffensperger to urge him again to overturn the results in the days before the Jan. 6 electoral vote count.

“So look,” Trump told Raffensperger. “All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.”

Raffensperger did not oblige, and by March 2021, Trump had convinced Hice to run.

Hice, a conservative pastor representing a largely rural district in eastern Georgia, has built his entire campaign around claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, taking frequent shots at Raffensperger for the way he handled it and its aftermath.

“This last election should not have been certified without proper investigation,” Hice said this month during a debate with Raffensperger and the two other candidates in the race. “The allegations were tremendous. They were all over the place, and they still are.”

Hice has been more explicit in claiming Trump won, telling CNN last year that “if there was a fair election, it would be a different outcome.” Trump “absolutely” won Georgia in 2020, he said.

Responding to questions from NBC News, Hice said in a statement that the “voice of the people at the ballot box was compromised” in 2020 and accused Raffensperger of “illegal ballot harvesting.”

Asked if he would commit to honoring the results of future elections, regardless of the outcome on Tuesday or in November, Hice said: "It is not about what candidate or party wins or loses an election, it’s about making sure that Georgians can be confident when they cast their ballots that the outcome of the election is accurate, truthful, and fair.”

Hice, whom Trump endorsed hours after he announced his campaign, voted to reject the state-certified election results in Georgia and Pennsylvania on Jan. 6, even after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. In a since-deleted Instagram post on the morning of Jan. 6, Hice wrote, “This is our 1776 moment.”

Hice was also among several Republican members of Congress who were involved in a planned effort to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 election by discarding electoral votes from certain states won by Biden, according to The New York Times, citing recent testimony given to the House committee investigating the insurrection.

While polling earlier this year showed that nearly 75 percent of self-identified Republican voters said they felt there’d been widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, Raffensperger said in a recent interview with NBC News that he felt Georgia Republicans were over their frustrations with 2020.

“I think people moved on from that,” he said.

Raffensperger has made his campaign a balancing act, maintaining that he did the right thing in standing up to Trump while also offering full-throated support for a restrictive voting bill Kemp signed into state law last year and tough talk on preventing undocumented immigrants from voting (an exceedingly rare problem in Georgia).

Chip Lake, a veteran Republican strategist in Georgia not currently affiliated with any of the secretary of state campaigns, predicted the strategy would be at least enough to see Raffensperger advance to a runoff.

“He’s in a much better spot than he was one year ago, and he’s done everything he can do to put himself in that spot, but he faces a very difficult primary on Tuesday,” Lake said. “I think he’ll make it to overtime,” but after that, “anything can happen."

Raffensperger, who has spent large chunks of his campaign explaining how the claims by Trump and his allies are not true, told NBC News he had “set the record straight” regarding his role in 2020 and that his office had investigated every allegation of voter fraud and improprieties. He said that Georgians who continue to believe Trump won “just don’t understand what happened” and that they were still struggling to cope with “a tough loss.” 

He also attacked Hice for having done nothing during his four terms in Congress to improve election integrity, even though he’s made it the central tenet of his campaign.

“Jody Hice was up in Congress. He never did anything to have any type of election reforms, any election modifications, anything that he’d like to see, you know, for election integrity for the eight years that he was up in D.C.,” Raffensperger said. Hice, he said, “has run around the state, and he’s just been lying for 18 months” about the 2020 election.

Asked whether the race has again pitted him against Trump, Raffensperger replied, “I’m just getting into the truth and I’m leaning into the goodness of my fellow Georgians at the end of the day,” which he predicted will ultimately lead him to victory.

While polling has been scant, a survey from late April, conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, found Raffensperger leading Hice among likely GOP primary voters 28 percent to 26 percent — within the margin of error. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they were undecided. Two other lesser-known candidates — former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and former Judge T.J. Hudson — received support in the single digits.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off election between the top two vote-getters.

Politics watchers, however, have noted that there is likely to be a large amount of crossover voting, making the results of the race even more unpredictable. 

In Georgia, primary voters can request a ballot for either party’s election, and Abramowitz pointed to growing evidence that an increasing number of Democratic voters have, during early voting, cast ballots in the Republican primaries — which he said would help Raffensperger.

“In all likelihood, these are Democrats who will still be voting Democrat in the general election but are jumping into the primary to use it as an opportunity to support anti-Trump candidates,” he said.

Nonetheless, if a large number of undecided voters break against Raffensperger, it will be because Hice’s singular focus on the 2020 election broke through, Lake said.

“There are many times in politics,” he said of Raffensperger, “where you say, 'I did my job, and it cost me my job.'”