Long before Republican senators began publicly denouncing how Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger handled the voting there, he withstood pressure from the campaign of Donald Trump to endorse the president for reelection.
Raffensperger, a Republican, declined an offer in January to serve as an honorary co-chair of the Trump campaign in Georgia, according to emails reviewed by ProPublica. He later rejected GOP requests to support Trump publicly, he and his staff said in interviews. Raffensperger said he believed that, because he was overseeing the election, it would be a conflict of interest for him to take sides. Around the country, most secretaries of state remain officially neutral in elections.
The attacks on his job performance are “clear retaliation," Raffensperger said. “They thought Georgia was a layup shot Republican win. It is not the job of the secretary of state's office to deliver a win — it is the sole responsibility of the Georgia Republican Party to get out the vote and get its voters to the polls. That is not the job of the secretary of state's office."
Leading the push for Raffensperger's endorsement was Billy Kirkland, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign who was a key manager of its Georgia operations. Kirkland burst uninvited into a meeting in Raffensperger's office in the late spring that was supposed to be about election procedures and demanded that the secretary of state endorse Trump, according to Raffensperger and two of his staffers.
When reached by phone, Kirkland directed the request for comment to the Trump campaign, which did not respond. The White House and the Georgia Republican Party also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Joe Biden has been projected as the winner of the presidential election in Georgia by a margin of roughly 14,000 votes. The state is now conducting a hand recount at the Trump campaign's request. Raffensperger's office has said that the recount won't swing enough votes to tip the state into Trump's column.
As the Georgia results have become increasingly clear, Republicans have unleashed intense criticism on the secretary of state's office, accusing it without evidence of mismanaging the election and allowing Biden to carry the state by fraudulent means. Georgia's U.S. senators, Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both of whom failed to win majorities for reelection on Nov. 3 and face Democratic opponents in January runoffs, called for Raffensperger's resignation. All of the Republicans representing Georgia in Congress also signed a letter sent to Raffensperger's office from the personal email account of the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Earl “Buddy" Carter, criticizing the office for a series of supposed irregularities.
Rep. Doug Collins, who recently lost a bid for Loeffler's Senate seat, has been particularly vocal. On Monday, Collins tweeted, “In a year of political division in Georgia, few things have unified Republicans and Democrats — one of them is Brad Raffensperger's incompetence as Secretary of State." Raffensperger has reserved some of his sharpest responses for Collins, calling him a “failed candidate" and a “liar" on social media.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina, had phoned Raffensperger to see if the secretary of state had the authority to toss out legally cast ballots. Graham has said that he was simply asking how the process works. Two members of Raffensperger's staff who were on the call told ProPublica that the secretary of state's account was accurate and that they were appalled by Graham's request.
Raffensperger said that the Trump campaign “scapegoated" him. Its contention that he ineffectively managed the election amounts to “hot air and hyperbole," he said. “In Georgia, it is not new to see failed candidates claim fraud or suppression. At the end of the day, the Trump campaign's messaging didn't resonate with 50% plus one of the voters."
The campaign's formal efforts to gain the secretary of state's endorsement began on Jan. 10, when Kirkland emailed Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs, assuming that Raffensperger would welcome the opportunity to serve in an unofficial role. “We are getting ready to release the campaign's statewide leadership team and wanted to make sure you were good to be listed as an honorary co-chair?" he wrote, according to an email obtained by ProPublica. At the direction of Raffensperger, Fuchs declined.
“It is our standard practice not to endorse any candidate. This policy is not directed at any specific candidate, but all candidates, as the Secretary oversees elections and the implementation of new voting machines here in Georgia," she wrote.
Kirkland has a long history in Georgia Republican politics. He has also worked for the Trump White House — first in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and then for Vice President Mike Pence. He left the White House in the fall of 2019 to become a Georgia-based senior adviser to the Trump campaign. He also serves as a senior adviser to Pence's leadership PAC. FEC filings show that Kirkland is paid for consulting by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. Loeffler hired Kirkland to be her campaign manager in January.
It's not unusual for candidates to ask for the endorsement of state elected officials, including secretaries of state, said veteran Republican elections attorney Ben Ginsberg. “But usually, campaigns accept the answer they are given if they know how to behave," Ginsberg said.
The Trump campaign did not accept Raffensperger's refusal. After Raffensperger announced that his office would mail absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state ahead of its June primary, a move opposed by the Trump campaign, the executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, Stewart Bragg, requested a meeting. He told Raffensperger's staff that he wanted to discuss election law and outstanding public records requests for voter data filed by the party.
Kirkland crashed the meeting shortly after it began. “A lot of people have noticed you didn't endorse," he said, according to two staffers. Raffensperger again made clear that any endorsements were against office policy, he told ProPublica.
Raffensperger had to leave the meeting early for another event. When the meeting came to a close, one of his staffers offered to continue the conversations at a later date and asked if there was any additional publicly available voter data that the party needed. “We'll see how helpful you are in November," Kirkland said, before leaving the office and slamming the door behind him, according to the staffers.
Trump has repeatedly and baselessly questioned the Georgia results on Twitter, accusing both the secretary of state's office and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — a Trump loyalist who, unlike Raffensperger, did agree to be an honorary campaign co-chair — of coordinating with activist and former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to make Georgia's elections less secure.
“The Consent Decree signed by the Georgia Secretary of State, with the approval of Governor \@BrianKempGA, at the urging of \@staceyabrams, makes it impossible to check & match signatures on ballots and envelopes, etc. They knew they were going to cheat. Must expose real signatures!" Trump tweeted over the weekend.
Nothing about the consent decree — which was aimed at addressing the disparity in signature matches among racial groups — prevents clerks from verifying signatures. Raffensperger said his office has repeatedly and publicly explained the process for signature matches, and he laughed at the idea that he would coordinate with Abrams, who has criticized his office over issues such as long lines at the polls in minority neighborhoods in prior elections.
Trump and the Republican legislators have pressed their allegations even as the National Republican Senatorial Committee has distributed talking points implicitly acknowledging that Biden won the election, according to an internal memo obtained by ProPublica. That message contrasts with what Trump, his campaign and his administration are telling supporters.
The memo was circulated last week among Georgia field staff, who are preparing for two runoff elections in January that will determine which party controls the upper chamber. It contains a series of “key" talking points directed at prospective voters. One says that the Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, “are funded by out of state liberals because they'll be a rubber stamp for their radical agenda to defund the police, open our borders, and pack the courts." Another states that, should Warnock and Ossoff get elected, “Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi will have the votes they need to transform our country into a socialist state."
The talking points omit any mention of Biden, but none of the outcomes outlined by the NRSC, which did not respond to requests for comment, would be possible with a Republican president.
Raffensperger expressed frustration at the lack of action by Republicans from the White House down to proactively address issues of election integrity. “If Trump and Collins were concerned about voter fraud, they would have proposed and passed legislation to fix it." Instead, he said, “they did nothing, absolutely nothing."
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