State secretary of state elections usually aren’t visible. An election for this state office usually isn’t water cooler conversation.
Unless, of course, that state is Georgia, which was one battleground in the hotly disputed 2020 presidential election, and the site of a highly visible runoff for both U.S. Senate seats on Jan. 5, 2021.
It was to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, that President Donald Trump made a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call, telling him in part, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” Trump has maintained that the phone call, which included lawyers from both sides, was proper and aimed at addressing allegations of voter fraud.
That phone call was included in the articles of Trump’s second impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Raffensperger also resisted pressure in the aftermath of the election and during the statewide recount, certifying Joe Biden’s victory. The state’s 16 electoral votes went to Biden on Jan. 6, 2021.
Raffensperger and his deputy, Gabe Sterling, say they have received death threats.
Raffensperger was first elected in 2018, succeeding Brian Kemp, the current governor, who is running for reelection against Stacey Abrams.
He’s now up for reelection too. He won a May 24 Republican primary victory by 52 percent to 34 percent over the Trump-supported Jody Hice. An estimated 75,000 Democrats crossed over to vote in the GOP primary, which Georgia allows under its open primary rules.
Raffensperger, who beat Hice by more than 200,000 votes, would have won without the Democrats, but their support allowed him to avoid a runoff he could have lost.
He now faces Democratic nominee Bee Nguyen.
“Some folks believe my opponent is a hero,“ Nguyen told a crowd of Forsyth County Democrats On Sept. 18. ”And I admit I breathed a sigh of relief when he did not find an extra 11,780 votes.
“But should the bar for an elected official be that low? In the words of Stacey Abrams, ‘Not committing treason does not make you a hero.’”
One question is precisely how many Democrats agree with her. Not committing “treason” might be quite significant in some voters’ eyes.
“A lot of people think [Raffensperger] was courageous and that he deserves reelection for that, even if they don’t agree with him on other things,” said a veteran Republican political observer who asked not to be named.
“For a lot of people, 2020 is the issue. There are Trump supporters who will not vote for him for any reason.
“But there are Democrats who will vote for him because of that. A lot of people who said, ‘It seems like he was the guy we need to stand up to authority and do what is right.’”
Democratic strategist Fred Hicks said of the crossover Democrats: “They did it largely to support [Raffensperger] against the Trumpers. Once they get comfortable voting for someone, it’s easier to do it another time. [Nguyen] has to pull those people back.”
The Democrats rewarded Raffensperger “for his not knuckling under to Trump, who made that phone call. He made these allegations, and Raffensperger said that’s not quite true,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.
But Bullock predicted most would return home to vote for Nguyen in November.
“They have the notion that Raffensperger would be far better from their perspective than Hice, but as a Republican not as good in their view as a Democrat would be,” he said.
The Republican observer said he thinks most Democrats who pulled a Republican primary ballot—their own party having had few contested races—did so not primarily for Raffensperger but to vote for Kemp against the Trump-endorsed David Perdue. While they were there, they voted for Raffensperger, too, he said.
Raffensperger faces his own challenges, including Trump supporters still resentful of his role in the election who may refuse to vote for him in November. Raffensperger, though, may have won goodwill with many public appearances since the election, patiently and tirelessly answering skeptical questions to dispel lingering suspicion among some about the elections.
“Many people said, ‘I don’t agree completely, but he struck me as honest.’ In a retail [political] setting, he did real well. There were a lot of people he converted in that setting,” the Republican said.
Georgia’s Election Integrity Act, which tightened up on 2020’s liberal use of absentee ballots and drop boxes, and bans handing out free beverages to those waiting to vote, may also be seen as an attempt to woo back conservative Trump supporters.
Democrats have labeled it “voter suppression.”
Republicans point out that the two major elections held since its 2021 passage—last November’s municipal elections and this spring’s primaries—both featured record turnout.
A poll just released by the University of Georgia School of Policy and International Affairs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, conducted between Sept. 5 and Sept. 16, shows Raffensperger well ahead of Nguyen by a margin of 50 to 31.
The poll shows Kemp’s lead over Abrams at 8 points, well beyond the 3.3 percent margin of error. Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker leads incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock by 2 points, within the margin of error.
Raffensperger now has “tremendous name recognition,” said Marci McCarthy, Republican chairwoman for the Atlanta metro area’s DeKalb County.
“He has testified in front of Congress. He’s run many ads. He’s a household name. He’s featured in all sorts of mainstream media. He’s written a book,” she said.
Nguyen, meanwhile, isn’t nearly as well known. She has raised less money, $2.2 million to Raffensperger’s $3.8 million, according to state records. She’s running to become the first Asian-American woman elected to statewide office in Georgia and has a name many might find as hard to pronounce as “Raffensperger.” (It’s pronounced “when.”)
Nguyen has another problem, Hicks said. Far more Democrats than Republicans vote for the candidates at the top of the ticket but don’t complete their ballots, neglecting to vote for down-ballot races such as the secretary of state.
“Drop-off is a very real issue,” Hicks said, citing the Jan. 5, 2021, runoff elections.
Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won their highly visible races determining control of the U.S. Senate. But a Democratic candidate for Public Service Commission further down the ballot lost by little more than 1,000 votes because so many Democrats didn’t vote the complete ballot.
Nguyen has a compelling personal story. Her parents were Vietnamese boat people, fleeing the Communist country in 1978 after her father, following South Vietnam’s defeat, spent three years of imprisonment starving and doing hard labor.
When he was released, her parents decided to leave.
“They left in the middle of the night on a boat thinking that they were going to die,” Nguyen said on Sept. 18 in Forsyth County.
They were stranded at sea and thought they would drown, as so many like them did, before being rescued by a fishing boat.
Nguyen’s older sister was conceived in a refugee camp and became the first member of the family to be born in the United States.
“She was born on the Fourth of July, but wait, it gets better,” Nguyen told the applauding crowd. “Her name is Betty Davis.”
Nguyen was born in 1981 in Ames, Iowa.
Nguyen worked as the head of a nonprofit group empowering minority girls before joining the Georgia Statehouse in December 2017 after winning a special election to fill Abrams’s seat when the latter resigned to run for governor.
She was the first Vietnamese-American elected to the Georgia Legislature and has not taken the same conservative political path many Vietnamese-Americans have followed to the Republican party.
“She’s very woke,” McCarthy said. “It’s an amazing legal immigration story. They were boat people and came here with virtually nothing. But she is very woke. She identifies as a left-leaning Democrat across the board. It’s counter to what her family fled. I find that really ironic.”
Hicks didn’t put it quite in those words but hinted at it in his recommendations for what Nguyen needs to do to win. Summer polls showed Raffensperger far ahead, he said. Full disclosure: Hicks says he’s donated to Nguyen’s campaign and had a fundraiser for her.
Nguyen needs to find a new angle to her conversation with voters.
“The election is going to be litigated over and over again. [The] Dobbs [abortion decision] will be talked about ad nauseam. She’s got to find another issue people aren’t talking about” if she wants to defeat Raffensperger, Hicks said.
Hicks suggests the secretary of state’s role in regulating businesses.
“She needs to defuse the fear around having a Democrat in that position, among people who are business-minded and socially moderate or liberal,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to show Republicans she’s not anti-business or anti-people making money. The Republicans have done an excellent job of painting Democrats as being anti-business, as being socialists, as being Communists.”
And they’ve succeeded partly because the Democrats never counter that argument, he said.
A pro-business stance for the secretary of state, who also regulates such matters as business licensing, corporate registration, and professional certification, would reach beyond Republicans to groups even more critical for her.
Hicks said business is a prominent but rarely talked about issue for minority men, many of whom want or need to become small businessmen.
Problems with business licensing and borrowing can be significant obstacles when these men seek to become entrepreneurs “to sustain themselves and their families, by being an employer and not just an employee,” Hicks said.
“Making it easier to do business with the state of Georgia and access capital faster to get a license and renew it, it’s important to African-American men, Hispanic men, and Asian men. It’s a big issue, but people don’t discuss it,” he said.
The black male vote isn’t as strong for Democrats as it used to be, although it’s still high at 80 percent. Several prominent rappers came out for Trump. This issue may be among the underlying reasons why.
Hicks said he saw this first-hand when he ran Kwanza Hall’s successful 2020 congressional campaign to finish out the late John Lewis’s term in 2020. Three African American men walked up to Hicks while he was handing out signs and told him they were voting for Trump.
“They felt the Democrats were anti-business,” Hicks said. “They found it difficult to find support as entrepreneurs.”
Trump, meanwhile, was pro-business.
One of the three men had been in prison and was on probation. He told Hicks, “I’m still being punished. The Democrats have never done anything for me to make it easier.”
Trump, though, had created funding for small businesses that didn’t exclude those with criminal records. Black men released from prison often can’t find jobs and must become self-employed to survive.
“We won that race,” Hicks said of Hall’s campaign, “and that was a big reason why. We had messaging mail, texts, and calls based around that.”