ATLANTA — Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says the truth is on his side in his reelection race, and much of the political universe agrees, with the glaring exception of former President Donald Trump and his most fervent supporters across the state.
That is the political challenge facing Mr. Raffensperger in his primary battle against Rep. Jody Hice, a four-term conservative Republican who has won Mr. Trump’s blessing and amplified accusations of massive voter fraud.
“The truth does matter,” Mr. Raffensperger told The Washington Times over breakfast at the Silver Skillet Restaurant in Atlanta. “A person of integrity expects to be believed, and when he is not, he lets time prove them right — and time has proven me right.”
Mr. Raffensperger must capture more than 50% of the vote in the May 24 primary race to avoid a two-person runoff election this summer in a massive test of Mr. Trump’s grip on the party and the resonance of the claims of a rigged election.
Polls suggest Mr. Raffensperger and Mr. Hice are bound for a runoff. Former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and former probate judge T.J. Hudson also are running and raising doubts about the 2020 election.
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Mr. Raffensperger, 66, said the grievance politics his rivals are employing reminds him of attacks by presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and her allies.
“They are [the] flip side of the same coin, but neither one of them are supported by the facts,” he said.
A former state lawmaker and CEO of an engineering firm, the soft-spoken Mr. Raffensperger rose to national prominence in 2020 when he refused to back Mr. Trump’s claims of a stolen election or cower to his demand that he “find” the 11,780 votes needed to overturn the results. The state voted for Democrat Joseph R. Biden.
“I have a job to do, and my job was to stand firmly planted and resolutely tell him, ‘Mr. President, we checked all the numbers out and our numbers are right’ and his numbers are wrong,’” Mr. Raffensperger said. “Now we are where we are. I’m not trying to pick battles with anyone. He obviously doesn’t like to lose.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is looking to pick a fight and is out for payback in Georgia.
He is backing former Sen. David Perdue’s primary challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp, Mr. Hice’s challenge against Mr. Raffensperger and a slew of other candidates — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — who have rallied behind his claims of a stolen election.
“We first have to defeat the RINO sellouts and the losers in the primary this spring,” Mr. Trump said at a March rally in Commerce, Georgia.
Mr. Trump sent a strong message last week in Ohio after all his endorsed candidates, including J.D. Vance in the U.S. Senate race, emerged victorious in the primary races.
In Georgia, Mr. Trump still faces some legal uncertainty that could add another wrinkle to the election cycle.
A district attorney last week selected a special grand jury to investigate whether Mr. Trump unlawfully tried to meddle in Georgia’s 2020 election.
With that as a political backdrop, Mr. Raffensperger said, his chief focus remains on striking a balance between expanding voting access and bolstering election security while beating back legal challenges from Ms. Abrams and her allies.
In recent weeks, he has zeroed in on making sure noncitizens do not break the law by voting in Georgia elections.
“My highest priority is only that American citizens can vote,” Mr. Raffensperger said. “You can’t go to any other country in the world and vote as a noncitizen.”
Mr. Raffensperger released an audit of voter rolls this year that discovered more than 1,600 people with unknown citizenship status tried to register to vote. None of them voted.
Whether the message will resonate with voters in a race largely defined by Mr. Trump’s electoral grievances is unclear. A SurveyUSA poll of Georgia adults found Mr. Raffensperger with a 31% to 20% lead over Mr. Hice.
Over the course of 18 months, Mr. Raffensperger has gone from being a relatively uncontroversial overseer of elections to becoming one of the state’s most polarizing figures.
Detractors deem him a RINO, or Republican in name only, and a sellout. Admirers herald him as a man of integrity and a defender of the rule of law.
That sentiment was on display at the diner when Charles Harman, who served as chief of staff for Saxby Chambliss in the Senate, stopped by Mr. Raffensperger’s table and pledged his support.
“I am a big fan of yours,” Mr. Harman said after introducing himself. “I am just proud to shake your hand. … Thank you also for following the law.”
Mr. Raffensperger and his family have received death threats and acts of intimidation since the 2020 election.
Coincidentally, Mr. Raffensperger said, his concealed gun carry permit arrived the day after the election.
“I said I guess the Lord is telling me, ‘You need to start carrying,’” he said.
The election-related blowback against Mr. Raffensperger has opened the door for Mr. Hice, a prominent member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who has served in Congress since 2015 and voted against certifying the 2020 election results.
“Look, the big lie in all this is that there were no problems in this past election,” Mr. Hice said in a recent debate. “This past election was an absolute disaster under the leadership of Brad Raffensperger.”
Mr. Hice said Mr. Raffensperger made it easier for people to cast fraudulent votes when he sent out millions of absentee ballot request forms to active registered voters in the 2020 primary election.
He said a settlement agreement with Democrats over absentee ballots weakened signature verification and voting drop boxes led to rampant “ballot harvesting.”
“He has let down the people of this state,” Mr. Hice said. “He has destroyed election integrity in this state.”
Mr. Raffensperger’s critics are also latching onto a new movie, “2,000 Mules,” from far-right filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza that seeks to cast more doubt on the results of the 2020 election.
Mr. Raffensperger is pushing back against Mr. Hice with a familiar retort: “Jody Hice is lying.”
Mr. Raffensperger said Mr. Kemp signed a bill to ban ballot harvesting in 2019. He said he did not soften signature match verification and that three vote recounts, numerous court challenges and various investigations have failed to provide any credible evidence of fraud.
“What happened in 2020, simply stated, was that 28,000 Georgians skipped the presidential race, but they voted down-ballot,” Mr. Raffensperger said.
Mr. Raffensperger said it is Mr. Hice who failed on election integrity by passing up an opportunity to make changes to federal election laws when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House.
“Jody Hice was asleep up until this election,” he said. “He did nothing, and now he talks about election reform measures.”
Mr. Raffensperger has called on Congress to shorten the blackout period for cleaning up voter rolls to 90 days before elections. He has called for a nationwide ban on ballot harvesting.
Mr. Raffensperger supported the election legislation that the state legislature adopted last year that, among other things, adds an identification requirement for absentee ballots.
He said it is time for the legislature to overhaul the “no excuse” absentee ballot system that has been on the books in Georgia since 2005, when Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, signed it into law.
Mr. Raffensperger also asked law enforcement and local elections officials to investigate people who may not have been U.S. citizens when they tried to register to vote.