For weeks, tension between President Donald Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has been on public display. Now, with the release of a Saturday phone call between the two Republicans, the public got a rare look at the private nature of the pressure campaign Trump and his allies have waged against Raffensperger to overturn the election.
Since Trump lost the presidential election, no state official has been more in the crosshairs than Raffensperger. And even with the Electoral College votes cast and just days away from certification, the pressure on the Georgia Republican remains high. Tuesday’s runoff elections for both of the state’s US Senate seats will determine which party controls the Senate, putting Georgia at the center of the political world.
According to audio of the call — obtained by CNN and first reported by the Washington Post and recorded by the secretary’s office — Trump asked Raffensperger to “find” the votes necessary to alter the results in Georgia, where President-elect Joe Biden won by a narrow margin. Raffensperger and his general counsel repeatedly disputed the President’s baseless claims of fraud and conspiracies, and insisted that the results were fair and that he had lost. Trump persisted, trying everything from veiled threats to suggesting Republicans would lose the upcoming runoff elections for US Senate.
The call was consistent with what Raffensperger has done all along. Though he has publicly stated that he wishes Trump had won, he has steadfastly refused to give credence to a litany of conspiracy theories bolstered by the President alleging fraud in Georgia. Over the past five weeks, he has has agreed to multiple recounts or audits, none of which have altered the result or uncovered anything that comes close to amounting to widespread voter or election fraud. By defending the sanctity of the election, Raffensperger has incurred the wrath of his own party, turning this self-proclaimed “conservative, Christian Republican,” into a pariah inside the Georgia GOP.
Both the state’s Republican US senators have called for Raffensperger’s resignation. The Republican governor publicly pressured him to investigate groundless charges of fraud. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called Raffensperger directly to discuss how absentee ballots might be thrown out (though Graham has said he was merely asking about signature verification). Raffensperger’s wife has even received death threats over text message.
Leading the anti-Raffensperger charge has been the President himself, whose anger in private is reflected in his public pronouncements. On Sunday, Trump tweeted that Raffensperger was “unwilling, or unable, to answer questions” about various evidence-free allegations the President and some of his aides have claimed happened in Georgia.
“He has no clue!” Trump concluded.
Raffensperger’s refusal to humor Trump’s dubious demands has won him plaudits from many around the country. But it’s had the opposite effect among Republicans in Georgia, some of whom say the soft-spoken, 65-year-old who once harbored ambitions to run for governor has written his own political obituary.
“If you can find someone who’s 18 years old and has a pulse who says they support Donald Trump, he’s going to beat Brad in the primary in 2022,” one former Republican elected official and longtime activist in Georgia told CNN in November. “I don’t see how he can survive politically.”
One GOP operative who spoke to CNN wondered if Raffensperger — a successful businessman who spent an unprecedented $3 million of his own money on his 2018 secretary of state race — will even run for reelection in two years.
Raffensperger, whose office has declined to comment to CNN about the recorded phone call, has insisted that his obligations to the public require him to speak uncomfortable truths to his fellow Republicans.
“I’ve been a supporter of President Trump, an early supporter both (in) our financial resources and also vocal in 2016, and then also in 2020,” Raffensperger told CNN in November. “But at the end of the day, our office is to make sure the election is run fair and accurately, and it’s what we’ve done.”
Friendly fire from Republicans
Trump tells a very different story. To him, he only lost the election in Georgia because of missing votes and questionable counts.
None of his claims has stood up to scrutiny, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from demanding that Republicans, who control nearly all the levers of power in Georgia, “get tough” and stop Democrats from “stealing” the election there.
Among the states where the Trump campaign is contesting the results, Georgia is the only one where the top elections official — Raffensperger — is a Republican.
That’s brought about an unusual amount of friendly fire.
On November 9, Georgia’s Republican US Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler called for Raffensperger to resign over unspecific charges of “failures” and questions about the integrity of the election. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who had previously served as secretary of state, stopped short of calling for his successor’s resignation. But he did echo the calls from Perdue, Loeffler and Trump to investigate potential fraud.
Raffensperger shot back publicly, defending the conduct of the election and saying he would not be leaving his job. He did, however, acquiesce to a hand recount two days later, on November 11.
“The truth is that the people of Georgia — and across the country — should not have any remaining doubts about who was elected governor two years ago or who won the presidential election earlier this month. The presidential outcome was remarkably close, but the new paper-ballot system, the strong election security and integrity mechanisms in place, and the audit and hand recount should combine to put to rest any doubts about the final outcome,” Raffensperger wrote in a November op-ed in the Washington Post.
To Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran GOP operative in Atlanta who is close to Loeffler, given the amount of pressure that was building on him, Raffensperger almost had no choice but to buckle to some of the early demands.
“I will say at the time that that happened, the temperature was pretty high,” said Tanenblatt. “There were a lot of people in the state, Republicans, Trump supporters, who believed there were real problems.”
Both Perdue and Loeffler are facing election in Tuesday’s runoffs, and Republicans in Georgia are hyper-sensitive to maintaining the loyalty of Trump and reaping the political benefits of his voter base.
A fall guy for the GOP
The intense focus on Raffensperger comes at a precarious time for Georgia Republicans. Though the party dominates control at the state level, holding every single statewide office and majorities in both houses of the general assembly, Biden’s win there carries with it a hint of danger to the Georgia GOP. It was the first time in nearly three decades that a Democratic presidential candidate has won Georgia, and comes as Republicans’ margins of victory there have been shrinking over the past few cycles. Now that Republican control of the US Senate hangs on the outcome of the two runoff elections this week, the spotlight on the Republican Party in Georgia is white hot.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise embattled Republicans would turn on their own.
“The GOP wants a fall guy for Georgia, and (Raffensperger) will be it,” said Erick Erickson, a talk-radio host on Atlanta’s WSB station and longtime conservative activist.
Tanenblatt, the GOP operative in Atlanta, said Raffensperger is a victim of the national attention he has drawn since the election.
“When you’re a secretary of state in a state and all of the sudden you become a nationally known figure in a squabble with the president of the United States, that doesn’t put you in a positive light,” Tanenblatt said.
Raffensperger went into the 2020 election with high expectations but also some baggage during his first two years in office. During the June primary elections, Democratic and liberal activists blamed him for long lines and faulty machines, particularly in majority-minority counties and precincts. Some Republicans, on the other hand, were bothered that Raffensperger had for the first time allowed counties to use drop boxes for absentee ballots during the primary.
“The June primary was very messy on Election Day, very long lines, people were very upset,” said the former GOP elected official. “People are very upset at the thought of putting your vote in a drop-box. People feel like that’s not secure.”
In the days after the primaries, Raffensperger suggested the problems were with a few county election officials, not in the secretary of state’s office.
Raffensperger’s moves on mail-in ballots have also drawn the ire of many state Republicans. In March, at the beginning of the pandemic, his office mailed out nearly 7 million absentee ballot applications to registered voters unsolicited, catching many of the state’s Republican leaders off guard.
His decision to alter the signature-matching rules for absentee ballots also became fodder for Republicans, including Trump, who say he made it easier for mail-in ballots to be accepted — and that that could help Democrats.
As Raffensperger tried to administer an election in the middle of the pandemic — anticipating more mail-in absentee ballots than ever before — his actions did not inspire confidence among many state Republicans, according to the former Georgia GOP official.
The former official told CNN Raffensperger failed to communicate effectively. “You’re in an environment where people are on edge,” the former official said. “There’s this large number of mail-in ballots, and now it’s on the strength of those ballots [that Biden wins].”
Raffensperger has continued to defend his performance and remains committed to the idea that the election was conducted fairly and offered a warning to those who charged otherwise without evidence.
“I think that we really need to be mindful about what we say to people, that we don’t really need to spin people up,” he told CNN in November. “We just have not found anything that was system-wide, systemic, that rose to the level that would actually overturn the results we have today that Vice President Biden has carried the state of Georgia.”