Nine years ago, Brad Raffensperger was a civil engineer and small business owner in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, running for city council on a promise to cap local property taxes and synchronise traffic signals.
Now he is one of the most divisive Republicans in the US. As Georgia’s secretary of state, Mr Raffensperger has attracted the ire of Donald Trump and his supporters since the presidential election on November 3.
Mr Raffensperger, 65, was thrust into the national spotlight when Mr Trump questioned the election results in Georgia, a southern state where Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Describing himself as a “proud Trump supporter”, Mr Raffensperger has rejected the president’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and called out fellow Republicans for casting doubt on the state’s electoral process. He has become emblematic of the fissures within his party, which is being forced to reckon with the president’s refusal to concede defeat to Mr Biden, who on November 7 was declared the winner of the 2020 election.
With the exception of a few longstanding Trump critics, such as Utah senator Mitt Romney, fellow Republicans have either backed Mr Trump or remained silent.
The president has gone after Mr Raffensperger, accusing the secretary of state — an elected official who is responsible for overseeing elections — of being a Republican in name only, or “Rino”. Mr Trump has called Georgia’s process for verifying ballots “very unfair and close to meaningless”.
“Everyone knows that we won the state,” Mr Trump said on Twitter this month, despite official vote counts at the time showing him trailing Mr Biden by tens of thousands of votes.
Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the two sitting Republican US senators from Georgia who are facing run-off contests in January, have also slammed the secretary of state with little cause, accusing him of “mismanagement and lack of transparency” and calling on him to resign.
The senators, like most of their colleagues on Capitol Hill, want to stay in lockstep with the president given his enduring popularity with Republican voters and reported desire to run for president again in 2024 if he is unable to overturn this year’s election result.
Initial tallies conducted after the polls closed in Georgia on November 3 showed that after some 5m votes had been cast, Mr Biden led by about 14,000 votes. Given the close margins, Mr Raffensperger called for a statewide audit, requiring poll monitors to manually review each ballot cast.
While the review process found some ballots had gone uncounted, the statewide audit was completed on Thursday and showed Mr Biden still won the state by some 12,000 votes. On Friday, Mr Raffensperger certified the audit; his actions were rubber-stamped by Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor. However, Mr Kemp suggested a second, more limited, audit to check that signatures on mail-in ballots matched signatures in the voter file.
The president on Friday tweeted that Mr Kemp and Mr Raffensperger were not taking steps that “would expose hundreds of thousands of illegal ballots, and give the Republican Party and me, David Perdue, and perhaps Kelly Loeffler, a BIG VICTORY”.
Mr Perdue beat Jon Ossoff, his Democratic opponent, by nearly two points on November 3. However, because he did not earn the support of more than half of voters, he has been forced into a run-off to be held January 5.
Ms Loeffler participated in a so-called jungle primary against 19 other candidates, emerging in second place, with 26 per cent of the vote. She will face off in January against Democrat Raphael Warnock, who earned nearly 33 per cent of the vote on November 3.
Earlier this week, Mr Raffensperger told The Washington Post that Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina and top Trump ally, asked him whether he could throw out mail-in ballots in certain counties — a claim Mr Graham called “ridiculous”.
ProPublica later reported that the secretary of state repeatedly rebuffed advances from the president and his allies, including a request to be an honorary co-chair of the Trump campaign and pleas to publicly support the president’s re-election efforts.
Mr Raffensperger has also stood his ground in the face of threats to his family. He says his wife has received threatening text messages, ranging from “You better not botch this recount. Your life depends on it” to “Your husband deserves to face a firing squad”, and “The Raffenspergers should be put on trial for treason and face execution”.
His resolve has attracted praise from the president’s critics. This includes Democrats who just months ago criticised Mr Raffensperger for purging more than 300,000 people from the voter rolls, along with long lines and understaffed polling locations during the Georgia primary elections in June, particularly in areas with large numbers of voters of colour.
“I have been pleasantly surprised by Raffensperger, that is for sure,” said Elizabeth Murphy, a Democratic party volunteer in Cobb County, a one-time conservative stronghold in the suburbs of Atlanta that voted overwhelmingly for Mr Biden.
“I admire that he is not backing down, and is telling everybody that will listen that this was a fair and free election,” said Brendan Buck, a Georgia native who was a Capitol Hill aide to former Republican House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner.
“He is going to great lengths in this recount to prove it,” he added.
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