A typically sleepy set of races has taken on outsize importance in this year’s midterms: the votes for secretaries of state, the administrators who generally control state election apparatuses across the country. Given the wide field of Republican candidates backing former President Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen and promising themselves to block a future Democratic winner from the White House via baroque procedural attacks, these contests have become a proving ground for whether the United States will face another coup attempt in 2024, and whether it will have greater odds of succeeding.
Tuesday offered the first big test of that question with Georgia’s Republican primary for secretary of state. Shockingly, incumbent Brad Raffensperger defeated the Trump-backed candidate and one of the staunchest proponents of the Big Lie, Rep. Jody Hice, winning more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff on June 21. Raffensperger is likely to face either state Rep. Bee Nguyen or former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler in the general election, but it was impossible not to see the result as a stunning defeat for Trump, whose candidates for attorney general and governor in the state also lost on Tuesday. Raffensperger’s victory was also a win for the premise that the nation can get past Trump’s false claims that Democrats swindled the 2020 election—which have pervaded the consciousness of Republican voters—and actually have elections in future years that are not marred by coup attempts.
“Hard not to see tonight as a self-inflicted wound by Donald Trump,” Georgia-based conservative political analyst Erick Erickson wrote on Twitter. “Raffensperger is the big tip-off here that the GOP is ready to move on in Georgia. He was dead man walking. And he’s a winner.”
Raffensperger, who had around 52 percent of the vote with more than 95 percent reporting on Wednesday, was one of Trump’s top Republican nemeses following the 2020 election. Raffensperger earned Trump’s eternal enmity for defying the former president’s efforts to steal the election and for loudly proclaiming Trump’s defeat in a clean race in Georgia. During an infamous January 2021 phone call that was leaked, Trump beseeched Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have” to overcome Biden’s slim, 11,779-vote margin of victory in the state. The Republican refused and will now likely cooperate with a Fulton County special grand jury investigating Trump’s alleged efforts to defraud the voters. Further, Raffensperger declared at every turn that Trump was the loser in 2020, saying last year that Trump “knows in his heart that he lost.”
Raffensperger’s defiance infuriated Trump, who basically hand-picked Hice to challenge the secretary of state for his heresy. “The people of Georgia must replace the RINOs and weak Republicans who made it all possible,” Trump said during a September 2021 rally in Georgia, of Raffensperger’s role in the last election. “In particular, your incompetent and strange—eh, there’s something wrong with this guy—your Secretary of State Raffensperger.”
In a series of statements, Trump urged Georgia’s Republican voters to oust Raffensperger, who in April he suggested was “in collusion with the Radical Left Democrats.” Instead, they chose him as their standard-bearer this November, even as Raffensperger repeatedly called out Trump’s Big Lie, declaring to anyone who would listen that the election was clean and that Trump lost because he underperformed other Republican candidates by tens of thousands of votes.
On Tuesday, Raffensperger likely won in part because of cross-over votes from Democrats who wanted to stick it to Trump. (Georgia has open primaries in which every voter can choose whether to participate in the Democratic or Republican contests.) That doesn’t discount, though, the success he achieved among Republican voters. Raffensperger was a fierce advocate for the GOP’s latest voter suppression measures in the state, promising to crack down on supposed fraud and illegal voting, even as he acknowledged the 2020 election had been clean. As Sam Levine reported earlier this month in the Guardian, there were clearly a significant number of GOP voters who professed to believe the vote count in 2020 had been corrupt, but still supported the man who ran that count and maintained a typical conservative position on other voting rights questions. “I felt that under all that pressure, he did a good job,” one voter told Levine. “I know it upset Trump, and I’m a Trump person, but fair is fair.”
It’s worth emphasizing, meanwhile, the extent to which Hice would have truly been disastrous for the 2024 election. “He could say he would not report any official totals and urge the Legislature to appoint its own slate of electors,” election expert and Slate contributor Richard Hasen told me of how Hice could have meddled in 2024 had he won. Indeed, Hice has said that he would not have certified Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 had he been in charge of the state’s election at the time. Had that happened, the Georgia state Legislature would have likely given the race to Trump, and the president would have just needed to corrupt two more close outcomes among Republican-controlled state legislatures. This was in fact his last-ditch plan to overturn the election, but it did not succeed because someone like Raffensperger—a conservative Republican!—was in charge instead of someone like Hice.
Hice wasn’t a latecomer to the Big Lie. The congressman spent most of his time between Election Day 2020 and the Jan. 6 insurrection promoting lies about voter fraud on Twitter and during appearances on Newsmax that would soon be debunked, refusing to acknowledge that they had been debunked, and ultimately backing Trump’s coup attempt in Congress itself. One day after the election, Hice promoted a theory that 138,339 votes in Michigan had been flipped to Biden, which was later shown to be a typographical error that was immediately corrected. He never acknowledged the mistake. In December, he promoted a false claim that voting-machine manufacturer Dominion had “flipped” votes from Biden to Trump in one Georgia county. He never corrected the lie. Hice also claimed repeatedly that a video showed election workers stuffing ballot boxes from secret suitcases hidden under a table and demanded a special counsel investigation. Investigators found no wrongdoing, and the election workers in the video sued another conservative TV network for defamation for promoting that lie, settling the lawsuit victoriously this month. Hice never corrected the record and had relied on this series of debunked claims—among others—to say that if he had been elected secretary of state, he would have sought to decertify the election from two years ago. Crucially, Hice also attended a December 2020 meeting where the White House plotted with Republican members of Congress to block the certification of the election on Jan. 6.
“In 2020, he was at a White House meeting to discuss overturning the results of the 2020 election and whether Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to overturn the election and reject presidential electors,” chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told me. “He was one of 126 Republican members of Congress who attempted to get the Supreme Court to stop several states from certifying Biden’s victory, on top of just himself voting against certification. That is undemocratic and un-American for a Congressperson to try to override the will of American voters in a presidential election.”
Prior to objecting to Georgia’s electors on Jan. 6, Hice also called it the objectors’ “1776 moment,” parroting a rallying cry of the violent insurrectionists. Following the insurrection, he described it as a “peaceful protest [that] was hijacked by bad actors—some reportedly masquerading as Trump supporters” and said “it was Trump supporters who lost their lives that day, not Trump supporters who were taking the lives of others.”
Needless to say, having this man in charge of elections in a major swing state in 2024 would have proved to be an utter disaster. Instead, Raffensberger—who thumbed his nose at the big lie that Hice did everything to promote—will be the Republican nominee. Democrats will still find plenty of reasons to criticize Raffensberger for adhering to party-line efforts to make voting as difficult as possible, particularly for people of color, in Georgia.
“I think Secretary Raffensberger may have done his job in 2020 when he certified elections results that reflected the will of the people, but he has done tremendous damage to voting rights in Georgia while in office,” Griswold told me. “We saw of course in Congressman Hice a willingness to help steal a presidential election, and in Raffensberger a willingness to suppress the voters of Georgia for his own political well-being.”
If the option is going to be between one or the other as the possible person in charge of our nation’s elections, though, it’s clearly preferable to have the candidate who won’t seek to overturn American democracy after a clean vote due to bullying and threats from an insecure loser.
As Raffensperger declared in his victory speech: “Not buckling under the pressure is what the people want.”