President Donald Trump has driven senators into retirement and tweeted wayward Republicans into primary defeat during four years leading the GOP. Now, as a lame duck, he’s launched a new campaign against GOP election officials who won’t bend to his will.
Trump’s drive to discredit the results of an election he lost has put him at odds with the Republican elected officials and administrators who oversaw the vote in key states — and called it what it was: a free and fair election. Being at odds with Trump doesn’t go over well in today’s Republican Party, and Trump has turned their political bases against them, even unleashing threats from his most rabid supporters.
No GOP official has caught more flak than Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fairly conventional Republican who won the job as Georgia’s top election official two years ago running as a rock-ribbed, anti-voter fraud conservative — with Trump’s endorsement. Now, after refusing strident calls from Trump and allies not to certify results that show President-elect Joe Biden carried Georgia, he’s facing down a potential primary challenge in 2022 and his family is dealing with death threats.
“I am a Republican, and a conservative one. And I believe that I’m going to be disappointed, because I don’t believe that my candidate is going to win,” Raffensperger said in an interview this week, before Georgia certified its results. “But that said, I want 100 percent of people to have confidence in the results. I’m not gonna like it. And I’m gonna have to take that medicine, just like everyone else in my party will, but it will be an accurate count.”
Raffensperger said he will run for another term in 2022, though other Republicans “probably have notions” of beating him in a primary now, he said. “And right now, emotions are pretty high. That’ll be what it is. I’m going to do my job. And my accounting is to the Georgians that put me in office here, and really all Georgians.”
He is getting some air support. Republicans for the Rule of Law, a group that has opposed Trump, recently launched a half-million dollar ad campaign in the state that thanks Raffensperger for running a “textbook election under extraordinary circumstances.”
“Look, it is an unfortunate reality that in the Trump era, with the exception of a precious few, it’s been difficult for Republicans who have stood their ground and stood on the side of truth, against the president,” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican operative who helps run the group. “It may do him political damage, but I think it is to his credit — as a human being and as a Republican — that he’s going to tell the truth no matter what.”
Trump has egged on opposition to Raffensperger, labeling him a RINO in a tweet and amplifying calls from GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler for Raffensperger to resign.
A simple mention in Trump’s Twitter feed can have serious safety and mental health consequences for officials, beyond their political considerations.
The threats “started out fairly general in nature,” said Al Schmidt, a Republican elections commissioner in Philadelphia. “But then regrettably, after the president tweeted my name, there were more of them, and they were far more specific in nature. So, referencing my children, and what they’re going to do to them.”
Like Raffensperger, the president tweeted about Schmidt, also calling him a RINO and saying he “refuses to look at a mountain of corruption & dishonesty.” Schmidt said he now has a security detail from the city to protect him and his family.
“It’s not just me, it’s also my staff, the other commissioners,” Schmidt said. The threats are not new, either. Many election officials have been dealing with them for months.
Election officials across the country have reported receiving threats for doing their jobs. “There are those, including the president, members of Congress and other elected officials, who are perpetuating misinformation and are encouraging others to district the election results in a manner that violates the oath of office they took,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Their words and actions have consequences.”
Even those who took the relatively prosaic step of making it easier to vote in the midst of a pandemic — like Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams — were not immune. Adams worked with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to significantly expand voting access for his state’s June primary, which earned him bipartisan praise within the state, and in the general election.
But he said he has also faced Republican criticism for his efforts, as Trump fulminated against the once-uncontroversial practice of mail voting — while national figures and prominent Democrats like LeBron James and Hillary Clinton criticized the state for leaving a low number of voting centers open (leaving out details like the expansion of mail voting). That led to abusive calls clogging election officials’ phone lines. Adams, too, noted he took on significant political risk.
“I’ve taken immense heat for my decisions on how to make our elections safe and successful, but notice no one is arguing I’ve made these decisions in my own or anyone else’s political interests,” he tweeted in August. “Show me the door in 2023 but until then I’ll act on my knowledge and my conscience.”
Georgia’s Raffensperger insists that he’s not bothered by the attacks on him and said he has the backing of rank-and-file supporters.
“Really, an awful lot of grassroot Republicans. Ronald Reagan-type Republicans, conservatives,” are with me, Raffensberger said. “People that can be objective and fair, and they’re not letting outside forces spin them up.”
Philadelphia’s Schmidt said he is less concerned with his own political future than he is with the erosion of trust in the democratic system.
“I’m concerned, I would say, for the future of our country in some respects,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, I’m concerned about the party and its future. But just more broadly, the damage that’s being done to our electoral system.”
Schmidt, who was reelected to a third term 2019 and won’t be up for reelection until 2023, said “I really haven’t thought about” if he’d run again. But he spoke at length about deteriorating trust in American elections.
“There’s an expression ‘there’s not a Republican or a Democratic way to fix a pothole,’” he said. “There shouldn’t be a Republican or Democratic way to count a vote.”