ATLANTA -- When asked about his decision to rebuff Donald Trump and certify Joe Biden's narrow victory in his state, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says he has no option but to defend his actions.
“We are all held accountable by the voters,” the Republican said as he seeks a second term, noting that he hears from voters who backed Trump’s effort to overturn the election and those aghast at the former president’s actions.
“I give them the facts,” Raffensperger said, because “Americans and Georgians are smart people.”
Yet other Georgia Republicans take a different tack. Burt Jones, the lieutenant governor nominee who signed on as a fake elector for Trump, defends his role in the defeated president's scheme; the two men atop the Georgia ticket — Gov. Brian Kemp and Senate nominee Herschel Walker — don’t say much about the 2020 election or the man who lost it.
The varied approaches reflect perilous fault lines for Republicans as they weigh the former president’s influence against Democrats’ assertions that a Trump-dominated party threatens democracy. Trump's serial lies that the election was stolen cast a pall nationwide. But nowhere is the dynamic trickier than Georgia, epicenter of Trump's plan after he personally pressured Raffensperger to “find” more votes. Winning battleground-state elections amid the fallout means coaxing votes from Trump sympathizers and more moderate voters he's alienated.
The pressure is intensified by pending investigations: a Justice Department inquiry; a congressional examination of the U.S. Capitol attack of Jan. 6, 2021; and special grand jury proceedings in Georgia's Fulton County, the seat of state government. District Attorney Fani Willis, a Democrat, is focusing on Trump’s pressure campaign against Raffensperger, Kemp and others to ignore voters’ will.
Biden, meanwhile, has stepped up his warnings about “MAGA Republicans” in recent speeches, and some Democrats in Georgia amplify that message.
“I got a question to the entire Republican ticket: How can you say you love this country, and you embrace and support a man that attacks its very foundations?” lieutenant governor candidate Charlie Bailey declared at Democrats' summer convention.
Jones, Bailey's opponent, denies that faux electors were part of any such attack. “That was never anything that we said,” Jones said of the slate that convened at the Georgia Capitol as if it were a legitimate share of the Electoral College.
Biden won Georgia by less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast. The result was affirmed by multiple counts, one partially done by hand. Jones and others have said they were merely preserving Trump's legal options, a claim undermined by evidence that later emerged of a coordinated effort to impanel unauthorized electors in multiple states. Elections officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no evidence Biden's win was tainted. Many courts, including judges Trump appointed, rejected his claims of fraud.
In Georgia's marquee races, Kemp and Walker avoid the topic.
Kemp, locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, acknowledges Trump only when he must. It’s the approach he’s taken since he ratified 16 Democratic electors after Raffensperger certified Biden's win, a sharp contrast from 2018, when he accepted Trump's endorsement during a hotly contested GOP primary for governor. Now, as when Trump raged at him publicly in 2020, Kemp explains that he was “following the Constitution” when he blessed Biden's electors.
That sidestepping strategy was girded first when Kemp crushed Trump’s hand-picked candidate, former Sen. David Perdue, in a May primary. The governor got another boost in August when a state judge ruled Kemp won’t have to testify about 2020 before the Georgia special grand jury until after the fall election.
The spring primary results show the risks. Kemp and Raffensperger, who also had a contested primary, benefited from tens of thousands of Democratic-leaning voters crossing over to cast anti-Trump GOP primary ballots. But Perdue still garnered 236,000 votes — a sign that a pro-Trump GOP faction hasn’t forgotten about 2020. Kemp's margin over Abrams in 2018 was about 55,000 votes.
Kemp aides acknowledge those splits, saying any credit Kemp has gotten from independents or swing-voting Democrats is already settled and there’s nothing to gain by talking about Trump. That's why Kemp's legal team wanted to delay the public spectacle of him entering and exiting the grand jury.
Walker, a first-time candidate trying to unseat Sen. Raphael Warnock, won’t say whether Biden won legitimately. “I don’t know, did he? ... We need to ask my opponent did (Biden) win fair and square,” Walker told reporters.
Warnock, indeed, does not question the results.
Despite a close relationship with Trump — the former president urged Walker to run and then endorsed him — Walker has insisted on camera that he’s never heard Trump claim the election was stolen. Trump has said so repeatedly, including his most recent appearances ahead of the midterms. “The 2020 election was rigged and stolen ... by people who got into office through cheating and through fraud,” Trump falsely declared last week in Pennsylvania.
Walker, though, doesn’t raise the subject on his own. His mentions of Biden and Democrats revolve around inflation or cultural issues, and he largely eschews Trump.
“Never thought about it,” Walker said, when asked whether he’d invite Trump to campaign in Georgia.
Abrams and Warnock perhaps help their opponents by not stoking 2020 embers themselves.
Warnock has concentrated on defending himself against Walker’s argument that he’s a Biden lackey; the Democrat tailors counterattacks around Walker’s exaggerations of his business and academic record, rather than associating him with Trump.
The two gubernatorial camps, meanwhile, name the economy as the most important issue, while agreeing that abortion could give Democrats an opening. Abrams’ paid advertising, especially, hits Kemp for signing a law banning abortions at six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager, said Abrams “will remind people that (Kemp) pals around with election deniers” but emphasized that her first task is to sell voters on what she’d do as chief executive.
Kemp’s advisers say they might be more worried about Trump fallout if Bailey had more money in the lieutenant governor’s race to use paid advertising to magnify his all-out assault on Jones and if Raffensperger's opponent, Bee Nguyen, had a larger advertising megaphone.
Despite Jones’ protestations, he was a top advocate for a post-election special session in Georgia, with the intent of shifting electoral votes to Trump. Jones, whom Trump called “a man of courage” in a December 2020 rally in Valdosta, signed papers supporting a court case by Texas to overturn Georgia’s results. On Jan. 5, 2021, Jones personally urged Vice President Mike Pence to delay Biden’s constitutional designation as president-elect.
“He got on his daddy’s plane and flew to Washington D.C., the day before the insurrection, met with the vice president, with a letter in his pocket, to convince the vice president not to count the electoral vote,” Bailey said in an interview, adding that Jones' demands aligned him with “the violent mob” that stormed the Capitol.
Jones also visited Arizona to watch a Republican-backed recount that only reaffirmed Biden's win.
“If you think that’s okay, then I’m not your candidate,” Bailey said, “because that’s the actions of an authoritarian.”
Raffensperger, for his part, said his interactions with Jones are “great.” But it’s notable the secretary of state and governor, at least for now, are running campaigns distinct from other Republican nominees, including Jones.
“That’s a process of what happens all the time, and I don’t think the other side is 100% unified either,” Raffensperger said. “What I’m really more focused on is what I can control, and that’s myself.”