Hice launches challenge to Raffensperger in race for secretary of state

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, announced Monday that he will run for Georgia secretary of state. Former President Donald Trump quickly followed the announcement by issuing an endorsement. AJC/Jonathan Phillips

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, announced Monday that he will run for Georgia secretary of state. Former President Donald Trump quickly followed the announcement by issuing an endorsement. AJC/Jonathan Phillips

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice launched a primary challenge Monday to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and the four-term Republican with a history of pushing falsehoods about Georgia’s election system entered the contest with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.

Hice loudly promoted Trump’s lies of widespread election fraud in Georgia’s 2020 race, and his campaign to become the state’s top election official sets up a showdown against Raffensperger, who drew the former president’s wrath after he defied his demand to “find” enough votes to overturn the election.

As he entered the race, Hice again echoed those falsehoods by accusing Raffensperger of creating “cracks in the integrity of our election, which I wholeheartedly believe individuals took advantage of in 2020.”

Trump quickly followed up with an endorsement that called the congressman a “staunch ally of the America First agenda” and said he would restore “honesty into our elections.” State and federal officials have repeatedly said there was no evidence of systemic voter fraud in the state’s 2020 vote, which was upheld by three separate tallies.

Hice’s plan to run, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, set off a scramble in state GOP circles. Several candidates quickly lined up to run for Hice’s conservative northeast Georgia district, while another Republican challenger to Raffensperger cemented his plans to enter the race.

Hice was among Raffensperger’s sharpest critics in Congress and introduced an objection to Georgia’s Electoral College votes with several U.S. House colleagues hours after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol failed to thwart the process that sealed Democrat Joe Biden’s victory over Trump. Hice’s effort to block Georgia’s votes didn’t proceed when then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler refused to endorse the futile challenge.

Hice, 60, also drew national attention when he proclaimed in a now-deleted Instagram post hours before the assault on the Capitol that “This is our 1776 moment.” His aides said the post was meant to highlight his objection to the Electoral College vote, not as an endorsement of the deadly attack.

And he was among several Georgia lawmakers, including then U.S. Sens. Loeffler and David Perdue, who joined the legal challenge filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate Georgia’s 5 million ballots. The lawsuit, which Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr called “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong,” was thrown out of court.

Trump’s support for Hice came a day after the former president’s adviser Jason Miller said on Fox News to expect a “big endorsement that’s coming that’s going to really shake things up in the political landscape in Georgia.”

The former president has remained intensely focused on Georgia since his defeat, blaming Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp for his narrow defeat. He’s repeatedly encouraged former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to challenge Kemp in the GOP primary, and he urged University of Georgia football great Herschel Walker to run for the U.S. Senate next year.

Domino effect

Georgia Republicans are wasting little time to prepare for the domino effect of Hice’s decision, which leaves vacant a deeply conservative northeast Georgia district that’s set to be redrawn by a Republican-controlled Legislature at year’s end.

State Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, said last week that he’s “humbled by the outpouring of support and encouragement” and is weighing a bid if the seat becomes open. And on Sunday, state Sen. Bill Cowsert of Athens said he is also “seriously considering” a campaign for the seat and that he’ll make a decision shortly if Hice runs.

Other potential candidates include Mike Collins, a trucking executive who was runner-up to Hice in the 2014 GOP runoff, and state Rep. Jodi Lott of Evans.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said he will "absolutely" seek reelection next year, even though he has come under withering attack from former President Donald Trump and most of the state’s GOP establishment for refusing attempts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential vote in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

In anticipation of Hice’s announcement, former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle sent word last week that he was also planning to challenge Raffensperger. Belle Isle, whom Raffensperger defeated in the 2018 GOP runoff, on Sunday scheduled a campaign kickoff event for Monday afternoon in his hometown.

Former state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat-turned-Republican who is popular with the pro-Trump crowd, made clear he was no longer considering a challenge to Raffensperger. He said on social media that he is now weighing a challenge to Kemp, whom he falsely blamed for scuttling Trump’s reelection chances.

The eventual GOP nominee for secretary of state is likely to face a tough Democratic challenger in November. Among the leading potential candidates is state Rep. Bee Nguyen, who represents Stacey Abrams’ former Atlanta district in the Georgia House and has emerged as a leading advocate for expanding voting rights.

Raffensperger, meanwhile, has vowed to “absolutely” run for reelection despite the backlash from his party’s base, which included a resolution adopted by the state GOP on Friday claiming his office “undermined public confidence” in the election.

Once a low-profile Republican state legislator, Raffensperger has come under attack from Trump and most of the state’s GOP establishment for refusing attempts to reverse the outcome of the 2020 presidential vote in Georgia.

In the months after Georgia’s November election, his refusal to buckle to Trump’s demands made him a hero in some circles — and an enemy in others. The mix of criticism and support for his stand has put him in rarefied territory.

In an AJC poll published in January, Raffensperger’s 47% statewide approval rating made him the most popular Republican in Georgia, topping both Trump and Kemp.

But it also showed he was more popular with Democrats, who give him a 60% approval rating, than he is with fellow Republicans. Just 45% of GOP voters said they’re happy with his performance.

Raffensperger said in a statement that few have done “more to cynically undermine faith” in the election system than Hice, and he pointed to the defeats of Loeffler and Perdue in January’s Senate runoffs after they endorsed Trump’s lies.

“We saw in January what Georgia voters will do to candidates who use that rhetoric,” Raffensperger said. “His recklessness is matched by his fecklessness as a congressman. Georgia Republicans seeking a candidate who’s accomplished nothing on election reform or anything else now have one.”

Jody Hice

Age: 60

Current post: Georgia’s 10th District representative in the U.S. House, first elected in 2014

Brad Raffensperger

Age: 65

Current post: Georgia secretary of state, elected 2018