Georgia’s Top Elections Official, Brad Raffensberger, Claims Primary Win Despite Trump’s Wrath

·10 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Georgia’s top elections official, Brad Raffensperger, proved on Tuesday that a low-key Republican can stand up to former President Donald Trump and still come out on top.

The Republican secretary of state overcame the odds and won Tuesday’s primary race, beating two Big Lie conspiracy theorists who tried to make him pay for standing by the real 2020 election results.

Raffensperger’s ability to bat away contenders—and even avoid a run-off election—shows that he is still riding high on his moment of triumph last year, when he became a hero to Democrats and moderate Republicans for resisting Trump’s menacing pleas to overturn election results in Georgia.

Although Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) received a massive boost with Trump’s endorsement, the traditionally conservative Raffensperger now forges ahead against a Democrat in November.

In Georgia, primary candidates need to win a majority to avoid a runoff. According to state data Tuesday evening, Raffensperger narrowly pulled off the feat. With 89 percent of precincts across the state reporting in results, Raffensperger just barely pulled ahead with 52 percent.

The Daily Beast spoke to Raffensperger at his election night party on Tuesday night at a restaurant in Atlanta’s northern suburb of Peachtree Corners, where the mood was buoyant. When asked about how Hice and Belle Isle had based much of their challenge on the 2020 election dispute, Raffensperger told The Daily Beast he thought it was all hot air and pandering.

“Have them put their hands on the Bible, and they’ll do a 180,” he said.

Later that night, he and his elections team—which included campaign supervisor Jordan Fuchs—jointly decided to declare victory and pop bottles of champagne just before midnight. Close supporters and state agency employees could be heard making toasts to “integrity.”

“To democracy,” said Noula Zaharis, a regulator at the secretary of state’s office who oversees securities and charities.

In a speech before reporters’ cameras at the restaurant, Raffensperger said, “The vast majority of Georgians are looking for honest people... not buckling under the pressure is what people want.”

Earlier in the day, local Republican strategist Jay Williams had predicted that this would be a tight race that was “Hice’s to lose.” He criticized the congressman’s reluctance to turn a sizable war chest into ads that actually got out in front of voters.

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“I don’t feel like he's run a great campaign. His messaging hasn't been great. He hasn't had a lot of communications with voters. Unless I search his materials out, I don’t even see it. I've gotten a lot of stuff from Raffensperger,” said Williams, who leads The Stoneridge Group from its office in Alpharetta, Georgia.

But he stressed that Raffensperger faced an uphill climb, citing what he saw as general lack of support from Georgia Republicans. He noted that Raffensperger was the only statewide Republican on the ticket in 2018 who had to grind his way through a run-off—a sign of a bad candidate running a terrible campaign, he said. Then he expanded access to voting during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020 election, angering the most conservative voters who worried that increased access would favor Democrats.

But the real threat came from Raffensperger’s refusal to go along with Trump’s attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s win in 2020.

Part of the challenge was the appearance of a high-stakes political battle—from what’s regularly a completely boring race for a political office most people don’t even know or understand.

“Raffensperger is more of a household name than a secretary of state should be,” Williams said. “He went after Trump, but he’s not big enough to go after him. That race doesn’t have a lot of money or a lot of influence. You can’t take on somebody like Trump and expect to get away with it. You can’t advertise your way out of it because you don’t have enough money and you don’t have enough influence.”

But Raffensperger remained competitive, in part, because the GOP primary race wasn’t limited to voters registered as members of the Republican Party. Georgia has an open voting system that allows voters to request whatever party ballot they desire.

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On Monday and Tuesday, The Daily Beast spoke to Republicans from the metropolitan giant of Atlanta in the north to the tiny town of Douglas in the south who shared stories of Democrat friends who pulled GOP ballots to weigh in on the secretary of state race.

On Election Day, The Daily Beast visited voting sites in heavily Democratic areas of downtown Atlanta and nearby suburban Decatur to the east. But none of the two dozen voters who were interviewed—all Democrats—said they had even considered asking for a Republican ballot to weigh in on the secretary of state primary election.

“It didn’t concern me enough to pull a Republican ballot for Raffensperger. Except for Herschel Walker [who is running for U.S. Senate], I don’t think a Trump endorsement will mean a hill of beans,” said Adrion Bell, who works as a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

“Besides,” he added, “I’d miss out on picking my state representative, and I don’t want to miss out on that race.”

Sophia Smith, another voter, said she chose to weigh in on the Democratic Party primary but after overhearing a conversation outside her polling station at Rainbow Elementary School now wishes she had chosen a Republican ballot. She noted her concern in having Hice—with his devotion to the Big Lie—elevated to a position of power over the state’s election system.

“Had I done more research and understood the urgency of it, I would have,” she said.

Public polling on the eve of the election—shortly after early voting had ended Friday and just before voting day itself on Tuesday—showed Raffensperger and Hice in a virtual tie. Much further in third place was Belle Isle, the former mayor of Alpharetta who also ran to unseat the incumbent secretary of state by aggressively pushing the since-debunked conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud. He vied for Trump’s endorsement by publicly pledging loyalty to the former president but failed to get it.

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Hice isn’t just a trafficker of the Big Lie, however. The congressman was one of the Freedom Caucus members who took part in making plans to pressure then-Vice President Mike Pence to throw out legitimate electoral votes and keep Joe Biden from assuming the presidency, according to federal court documents unsealed in April. Hice’s role was revealed by Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who testified under oath to the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.

Allen English, the president of the Atlanta Young Republicans, said he’s starting to get the impression that the new generation of Republicans seem to be rejecting Trump’s picks, in part, because his endorsement carries weight—but also some baggage.

“His endorsement is great, but I think people are rejecting somebody telling them who to vote for,” he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

Still, he expected a run-off between Hice and Raffensperger. English noted the spat last year between the former president and Raffensperger appeared to be far enough away to not be the deciding factor, but he acknowledged some of that anger does indeed linger. He interpreted Tuesday’s results not as a Raffensperger’s victory but a repudiation of Trump.

“It tells me everybody is rejecting Trump telling people who to vote for,” he said.

Despite the criticism that Hice didn’t focus enough on advertisements, he still amassed a larger sum than the incumbent he sought to unseat.

The latest available state data showed that Hice spent $1.8 million of the $2.2 million he raked in. But it’s unclear how exactly he spent it, because the biggest single listed expense went to something of a black box: a political consulting firm called War Room Strategies. The small company, started by conservative adviser Jordan Chinouth, received $489,000. Publicly available data didn’t say how that money was utilized.

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Meanwhile, it was clear from Raffensperger’s more transparent filings that he dedicated the bulk of his spending, 76 percent of it, to TV ads and the like. According to the latest state data, which was updated two weeks ago, Raffensperger spent $1.4 million of the $1.7 million he collected.

Much of that actually came from himself. Raffensperger dumped $800,000 of his own into his campaign. His top two outside donors were Nicholas Telesca, the president of an Atlanta real estate development firm, and Jimmy Dollar, owner of a local concrete and stone business.

Meanwhile, the largest single contributor to Hice’s campaign wasn't even in the state. Curtis R. Chandler, the head of a rail industry investment firm in Naples, Florida, donated $39,500 on behalf of himself and his business.

The overall numbers also echoed the overall story that Raffensperger got a much-needed boost from left-leaning donors, while Hice drew the attention of what has now become the controlling wing of the Republican party.

While three-quarters of the donations for each candidate came from people listing Georgia addresses, out-of-state donations hinted at how Raffensperger is being rewarded for standing up to Trump. The blue states of California and Massachusetts appeared most prominently in Raffensperger's campaign filings, as opposed to the help for Hice that came from mostly red Florida and bright red Texas.

The final stretch of the primary race was especially difficult for Raffensperger, who kept appearing in the news in relation to Trump as the nation still grapples with the aftermath of the 2021 insurrection and plot to halt the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in the country’s history. Last fall, The Daily Beast revealed new details on how his office handled the madness of the state ballot recount and the threats he, his family, and his staff received.

The Daily Beast also surfaced that his office had cooperated with Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the local prosecutor who was investigating the infamous call in which Trump pressured the state official to find bogus votes. Then he published a memoir titled Integrity Counts, in which he detailed Trump’s “threats.” Then in December, it became public that he spoke to the congressional committee investigating the insurrection and Trump’s role in it.

Raffensperger also attracted attention to himself when his office initially refused to allow the public to get access to a cybersecurity researcher’s report documenting alleged vulnerabilities in Dominion screen-selection-only voting machines used by Georgia and other states. That reticence led a federal judge to seal the report—which only raised suspicions and inevitably drew the attention of conspiracy theorists like the MyPillow guy, Mike Lindell.

Raffensperger has since pivoted and said he welcomes the publication of the report, but now it’s too late, because the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is reviewing the matter and keeping it under wraps.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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