How Raffensperger went from Trump outcast to MAGA vanquisher

As former President Donald Trump was trying to end Brad Raffensperger’s political career, connecting him to conspiracy theories befitting an outlandish spy thriller, the Georgia secretary of state took heart in a different type of film: “Dumb and Dumber.”

“A year ago, people said that we only had 10 percent support,” Raffensperger said in an interview. “I used to say, ‘10 percent, huh? So you say we got a chance,’” calling it a “gallows-type humor” paraphrase of Jim Carrey’s famous movie line.

Raffensperger capitalized on that chance Tuesday night, dispatching his Trump-backed challenger, GOP Rep. Jody Hice, with a comeback that took him from being ostracized by the state Republican Party to cleaning up in nearly every corner of the state. Trump has endorsed a slate of candidates for election offices who parrot his falsehoods about the 2020 election being stolen — and Raffensperger, who refused Trump’s entreaties to “find” more votes in 2020, just defeated the first one.

He did it by meeting skeptical voters head-on, appearing regularly on conservative media and touting his support for conservative election policies. Raffensperger spent long hours on the road to talk to basically any group that would have him — even when they wanted to relitigate the 2020 vote that Raffensperger has consistently defended as clean and fair.

And, spotting an opening at the end of a primary many assumed would go to a runoff, Raffensperger and an allied super PAC poured in resources when his challengers started to coast, pushing hard all the way through the election, which he won with 52 percent of the vote. Altogether, it added up to the biggest GOP rebuke of Trump since the day 10 House Republicans voted to impeach him.

“What I believed in my heart of hearts is that they were not seeing what I was seeing,” Raffensperger said. “I believe that people are good, and people are looking for good people that do the right thing. And last night, I was proven right: That people in Georgia aren’t just good. People in Georgia are wonderful.”

Meeting his critics

The small, rural counties of Whitfield and Murray highlight Raffensperger’s turnaround. In April 2021, Raffensperger — along with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp — were both censured by the local county parties in the northwest corner of the state.

Yet on Tuesday night Raffensperger won a strong plurality of Republican voters in both, coming a hair short of an outright majority in Whitfield County. Combining those showings with a commanding margin in and around Atlanta helped push him above the runoff threshold.

Raffensperger attributed his victory across the state to that travel schedule that brought him in front of county parties and civic groups whose members were once furious with him, as well as less politically tuned-in voters that he needed to activate. “I was talking to Rotarys, Kiwanis, business chambers, the Tea Party groups,” Raffensperger said.

He also spent a considerable amount of time talking to the media, especially the conservative press. Raffensperger did not waver from defending the 2020 election: He rolled out an oft-repeated explanation that Trump lost because Republican voters backed down-ballot Republicans but did not pull the lever for the then-president. But he also talked up other more orthodox Republican election stances.

Raffensperger’s team said that the travel schedule paid dividends. “It crystallized, I would say, in early December, when we started to see a shift with the voters that we were meeting on the ground,” said Jordan Fuchs, a longtime top aide to Raffensperger. “I think there was a very quiet majority, on the ground, of voters who understood what happened: that there was an individual who was upset with the election results and they were looking for a scapegoat.”

Raffensperger also put his own money into the race, seeding his campaign with $800,000, according to state campaign finance records.

A super PAC assist

The secretary of state also had key help come in at the last moment from Americans Keeping Country First, a super PAC formed by allies of Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), another Trump foe.

The group poured $1.4 million on advertising and mailers into Georgia to boost Raffensperger among a chunk of undecided primary voters, according to a memo from the group shared first with POLITICO. “Secretary Raffensperger never wavered after the 2020 elections and Georgia voters showed that standing for what is right still matters,” Brendan Buck, an AKCF board member who was a top aide in former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office, said in a statement.

Zach Hunter, the group’s executive director, said in an interview that getting to those late undecided Republican voters was key to the group’s strategy. But the super PAC pitched a message that went after prominent Democrats instead of Hice, which polling found had “virtually no name ID outside his congressional district,” Hunter said.

A mailer from the group obtained by POLITICO prominently featured Democrats, saying Raffensperger is “fighting back” against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams “and their far-left agenda,” a message repeated in TV ads.

“We leaned in heavy into a contrast message. But it wasn’t with his primary opponent, it was with well-known Democrats who are disliked by the GOP base,” Hunter said. “Because nobody knew who Hice was, we never had to mention him.”

The group, which also supports members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump, said the Raffensperger race was its biggest investment so far. AKCF also says it spent a smaller amount in the recent Idaho secretary of state race to boost Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, a local election official who accepted the results of the 2020 election. McGrane squeaked by two election deniers to win the GOP primary in that race.

Now, the super PAC is deciding future targets.

And as Raffensperger celebrates his victory, some of Raffensperger’s allies are incredulously mocking Hice’s campaign, too.

“Brad Raffensperger did absolutely the right thing during 2020. And he’s been rewarded by winning a Republican primary,” said Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a sharp critic of Trump who opted to not seek reelection this year. “The second part is that the quality of a candidate actually still matters, and Jody Hice was a terrible candidate.”

Even before the election, some Republicans in the state marveled at Hice’s absence, noting a lack of advertising from the challenger. Raffensperger said that his opponents seemed to be “just sitting back, waiting for a runoff,” that ultimately will never come.

Fuchs, the senior Raffensperger aide, pointed to a POLITICO story last year in which some Republicans in the state wrote him off — “prematurely,” she added. “It would make sense as to why somebody would think that. There was a very significant endorsement backing our opponent.

“The problem is,” she continued, “I think our opponent never made a switch over to a different conversation about, ‘What is he going to actually do for the voters of Georgia.’ He didn’t have a plan, there was not a specific policy issue, it appears that he was just running as anti-Brad.”

And Raffensperger likely received a boost from Democratic voters who crossed over into the GOP primary. An early analysis from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 7 percent of voters in this year’s Republican primary cast a ballot in the Democratic primary in 2020. Even assuming that the vast majority of those voters backed Raffensperger, it would have not been nearly enough to propel Raffensperger to victory — but it could have been the boost he needed to get to the majority mark to avoid a runoff.

On to the general election

Now, allies of Raffensperger argue that he is well positioned to win reelection in November, when Democrats will be running hard for the office.

“Brad is going to be able to say he performed under the most intense scrutiny and pressure of any secretary of state in the country,” said Duncan. “So if I was a Democrat, they better start being creative to figure out talking points other than track records.”

Raffensperger won’t know his Democratic opponent until June, after a primary runoff. State Rep. Bee Nguyen easily secured the first spot in the runoff, getting around 44 percent of the vote.

Former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler won the battle for the second Democratic runoff spot. But Nguyen — viewed as a rising star among Georgia Democrats — will be the heavy favorite to secure the nomination in June. Even before the runoff, she was a clear fundraising leader and had already secured major endorsements from both national and state-based organizations like EMILY’s List, End Citizens United and Fair Fight, which was founded by Abrams.

The state is among the top battlegrounds for election administration offices this year. And while Raffensperger’s win removes the threat of one of Trump’s followers administering a battleground election in 2024, there are still several other states where that remains a possibility. Trump has endorsed election conspiracy theorists in Arizona and Michigan, backing state Rep. Mark Finchem and Kristina Karamo, respectively.

While Democrats credit Raffensperger for doing the right thing in 2020, they have indicated they will run hard against him this year. They are furious over his support for SB 202, the controversial election law passed last year that made it more onerous to vote by mail and makes it possible for the state election board to remove local officials, among other provisions that are meant to alleviate longer lines in frequent problem areas.

“Georgians can choose between a secretary of state who wants to play politics and pick and choose who gets to vote, or someone like Bee who will fight for every Georgian voter to have their voice heard,” Kim Rogers, the executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, said in a statement.