Critics aim to take Fani Willis’ removal fight to the ballot box

The Georgia Senate is in turmoil over efforts to sanction Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in connection with her investigation that brought an indictment against Donald Trump and 18 allies accused of trying to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The Georgia Senate is in turmoil over efforts to sanction Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in connection with her investigation that brought an indictment against Donald Trump and 18 allies accused of trying to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Fani Willis faces more than a growing legal crisis as Donald Trump and his allies press to disqualify her from the Fulton County election interference case. She also has an urgent political problem.

With a deadline to qualify for office approaching, Republicans are searching for a formidable candidate to run against the first-term district attorney. She also faces the potential of a longshot challenger from her own party.

Willis will be the odds-on favorite no matter who files paperwork to run by March 8. Fulton County is a Democratic stronghold, and she is one of the most recognizable political figures in the state, if not the nation. She has the advantage of incumbency and amassed a small fortune in her campaign account.

But a a GOP contender might relish the opportunity to turn the race into a proxy fight over her racketeering case that charged Trump and 18 others with conspiring to overturn President Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 victory in Georgia.

And a challenger could also bring more scrutiny to her personal relationship with special prosecutor Nathan Wade that’s at the center of efforts by Trump and several of his co-defendants to remove her from the case. It’s possible — some would say likely — that there won’t be a decision on whether to disqualify Willis and her office from the Trump case before the deadline to run against her closes.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has led the push to draft a conservative attorney to challenge Willis. She called the November vote a “rare opportunity to restore balance” in the office.

Former US Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks at The Gathering conservative political conference in Buckhead on Friday, August 18, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“Whether Fani Willis gets removed from office, disbarred, or voted out in November, the people of Fulton County will be much better off when we have a DA who is committed to upholding law and order instead of partisan politics and personal gain,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A special grand jury who advised Willis on the Trump investigation recommended that Loeffler be criminally charged, but the DA ultimately decided against it.

No contenders have emerged so far. And Willis’ allies say any political challenge against the veteran prosecutor would be a fool’s errand.

Charlie Bailey worked alongside Willis as an assistant prosecutor before running unsuccessfully for attorney general and lieutenant governor the last two election cycles. He encouraged Willis to run for DA four years ago, and said he’s not worried about any political threat. Why not?

“Because I’ve got a functioning brain stem and I know how politics work,” Bailey told the Politically Georgia podcast. “It’s not going to matter. Fani Willis will be re-elected district attorney regardless of who runs.”

‘Sit back and watch’

Few know better than Willis the challenge of going toe-to-toe against an incumbent district attorney. She was a protege of Paul Howard, who served as Fulton County’s top prosecutor for six terms, before challenging her former mentor in 2020.

She said she took the plunge because of heavy turnover in the office and Howard’s mounting scandals, including sexual harassment allegations, staffers’ claims of gender discrimination and a state probe over his use of a nonprofit that supplemented his salary.

Willis raised significantly more money than Howard, who had faced only token opposition after being elected Georgia’s first Black DA in 1996. He had also alienated many local powerbrokers, helping Willis rack up endorsements from a kaleidoscope of leaders, including a powerful police union and conservative city Councilmember Mary Norwood.

Fulton County's newly elected District Attorney Fani Willis shows the photo left behind by former DA Paul Howard, who was once her boss, in a conference room at the Fulton County Courthouse in downtown Atlanta on Thursday, Feb 18, 2021. The former DA and his team took all the furniture and left behind boxes of unprocessed cases and 10,000 open cases dating back to 2017.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

While Howard tried to frame Willis as a tool of the white GOP establishment, Willis staked out the middle ground by promising to bring change to the office but refusing to align herself with progressive figures in other major cities who swore off prosecuting certain low-level crimes.

“I’ve walked over enough dead bodies to know you have to have prisons,” she said at the time. “On the other end of the spectrum, you have these people who think everyone should go to jail. I don’t think that. I think we should have programs that restore people.”

After crushing Howard in the Democratic primary runoff — besting even her own campaign’s internal polling — Willis had a message for her skeptics.

“Sit back and watch,” she said at the time. “The best thing about me is I am who I say I am. The worst thing about me is I am who I say I am.”

‘Nail in the coffin?’

Willis has sought out a dramatic transformation for the Fulton DA’s office, from overhauling its workplace culture and its process for charging suspects to its relationships with other branches of law enforcement.

She won plaudits for her handling of the election interference case in the months after a grand jury handed up 41 felony counts against Trump and others. Supporters have pointed to the four plea deals she’s secured since then.

But even Willis’ staunchest defenders have questioned her judgment after she acknowledged a personal relationship with Wade, the special prosecutor she hired to oversee the racketeering case.

On Friday, defense attorneys submitted cellphone data to the court which they say could contradict sworn testimony that Wade made about when his relationship with Willis started and how many times he visited Willis’ condo before she hired him. The DA said the submission violated court rules and does “not prove anything relevant.” On the witness stand earlier this month, Willis was blunt: “I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you put me on trial.”

The fast-moving developments have also opened her up to more scrutiny from a hostile state Legislature. The Republican-led Senate recently launched a new committee with subpoena powers to investigate Willis at the urging of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who could still face criminal charges for his role as a pro-Trump elector in 2020.

(A Fulton judge barred Willis in 2022 from further investigating Jones because of a fundraiser she hosted for Bailey, who at the time was vying to be Jones’ opponent. A nonpartisan state agency is tasked with deciding next steps with Jones.)

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones discusses the agenda for this year’s Legislative Session during a press conference in his office at the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Lawmakers are also reviving a new state commission with powers to sanction or remove prosecutors who have run afoul of Georgia law. Senate GOP leaders have already filed a complaint asking the panel to punish Willis for prosecuting Trump.

Some Democrats worry that Willis’ credibility issues could bleed over into the 2024 race for the White House. Richard McDaniel, a Democratic strategist, said he worries that Willis could be the “nail in the coffin” for Democratic efforts to keep Georgia in Biden’s column in November.

“President Biden and the Democrats’ down-ballot cannot afford another distraction,” McDaniel said. “The district attorney’s lack of judgment jeopardizes the integrity of this case. It provides the perfect opportunity for Republicans to continue to sow doubt in voters’ minds leading up to the November election.”

Willis’ allies say they’re convinced the attacks will only fortify her political support, particularly among Black women who make up the most reliable Democratic constituency. Exit polls of Georgia’s 2022 midterm showed that 93% of Black women backed Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s reelection bid - higher than any other demographic polled.

“It makes the Democratic electorate even more ticked off,” said David Cooke, a former Macon district attorney who has known Willis for more than two decades. “The Democratic base sees this for what it is. If anything, it’s going to drive bigger turnout for her.”

Former state Rep. Erica Thomas put it a different way. Over the weekend, the Democrat hosted a swanky fundraiser for Willis and posted a message on social media Saturday about the event. Her plea to voters: “Above all we must protect Black women.”

Former state Rep. Erica Thomas hosted a February reception for District Attorney Fani Willis. Instagram.

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