In tight Georgia GOP primary race for secretary of state, name recognition may decide the winner

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in Atlanta. Georgia election officials have announced an audit of presidential election results that will trigger a full hand recount.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020, in Atlanta. Georgia election officials have announced an audit of presidential election results that will trigger a full hand recount.

Since the 2020 presidential election, Georgia's secretary of state position has garnered national attention, placing a typically lesser-known race in the spotlight.

Incumbent Brad Raffensperger attained national prominence in his defense of the 2020 presidential election and its results. He also drew the ire of former President Donald Trump, who has backed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice in the May 24 Republican primary to unseat him.

"A big part of it is what happened after the election with how he responded to Trump," Jay Williams, a GOP strategist, said of Trump's fierce criticism of Raffensperger. "If you put (Raffensperger) next to Kemp in terms of how they responded to Trump's attacks, they're totally opposite."

Raffensperger's defense of how he conducted the 2020 election has also drawn sharp criticism from those in his own party. But as the primary approaches, the race remains closely contested, showing both the strength and limits of Trump's endorsement against incumbents.

Read More: Trump picked sides in the Georgia governor's race. His candidate is struggling.

Trump effect: Here are 7 GA candidates endorsed by Trump for the primary election

Other races: Stacey Abrams runs unopposed in the Democratic primary. How that's impacting her campaign

An interactive poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed 28% of likely voters in the Republican primary supported Raffensperger, while 26% supported Hice - within the 3.3 percent margin of error. Around 37% remain undecided.

"I view this as good news for Raffensperger, I mean he's been pummeled more than anybody else in the country probably," said M.V. "Trey" Hood III, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. "To still be in it is probably good news for his campaign. I don't think Hice has run a particularly strong campaign himself."

Hice has largely fallen in line with Trump in hammering Raffensperger on how he conducted the 2020 election. But his name is not as well known outside of his constituents, according to Williams.

The Trump Effect

Former President Donald Trump is attempting to leverage his influence with Georgia Republican voters to bolster the primary election hopes of seven candidates. Leading up the May 24 vote, journalists from the Savannah Morning News, Augusta Chronicle and Athens Banner-Herald will examine the role the former president is playing in key Georgia races.

May 2: The Trump ticket

May 3: U.S. Senate

May 9: Georgia governor

May 17: Georgia secretary of state

Hice's tenure as a U.S. congressman has given him a base and location of power to launch from, the strategist said, but a large amount of the electorate still does not know him.

"My opinion is that Hice hasn't run that great of a campaign," Williams said. "It's completely based on being not-Raffensperger."

While Raffensperger has been the subject of scrutiny and national attention, his opponents in the Republican primary have struggled to raise their name recognition to his level. And his closest competitor, Hice, will need this on election night.

"Trump's endorsement is not going to be on the ballot," the University of Georgia's Hood said. "It could have an effect on down-ticket races, but people are going to have to seek out that information ahead of time."

A poll from Hood, first reported in the Journal-Constitution, showed the influence of a Trump endorsement in the race. In a control group of voters with no knowledge of Trump's endorsement, 30% supported Hice, while 22% supported Raffensperger. Around 39% remain undecided.

But in adding knowledge of Trump's endorsement in the race support for Hice shot up to 60%, while Raffensperger's declined to around 16%.

Name recognition

In a down-the-ballot race like secretary of state, voter familiarity with candidates is even more key, according to strategists and political scientists.

A campaign spokesperson for Hice said the campaign has been intentional in getting Hice out in front of potential voters.

"The Hice team is very focused on continuing 10s of 1,000s of voter contact dials, knocking on doors, and getting signs out across the state," they said. "We're going to continue to get him around the state and be ready for election night."

Candidate for Georgia secretary of state Rep. Jody Hice takes the stage at a "Save America Rally" at the Banks County Dragway on Saturday, March 26, 2022.
Candidate for Georgia secretary of state Rep. Jody Hice takes the stage at a "Save America Rally" at the Banks County Dragway on Saturday, March 26, 2022.

But while Trump's criticisms of Raffensperger have been sharper than even his criticisms of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, the barbs have also grown Raffensperger's profile.

Brian Robinson, a GOP strategist, said typically the secretary of state race is a generic ballot race, and in a general election voters will vote for their party instead of a personality. But Raffensperger has become a secretary of state known nationally, he said, drawing heightened attention to the race.

"This is anomalous because Raffensperger not only has extraordinary name ID in Georgia, probably unparalleled name ID in Georgia for a secretary of state, he has national name ID," Robinson said. "That's unheard of."

Robinson said the closest comparison in recent history would likely be Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who drew national attention for her state's recount of the 2000 presidential election.

"Raffensperger is someone whose name you could say waiting to get into Dodgers stadium, or waiting to get into a Broadway show in New York, and people in line may know who you're talking about," he said. "This is very different than normal."

Robinson said there also hasn't been a time in the past where a former president also weighed in on down-ballot primary races, as Trump has in the Raffensperger-Hice content.

"That's highly unusual, particularly for a former president who still commands extraordinarily high approval ratings from the partisan base and whose endorsements carry a lot of weight in races where people don't know a lot about the candidates," he said.

But familiarity has been the difference. Robinson noted Kemp continues to lead former Sen. David Perdue, who is endorsed by Trump, in polls for the governor's race. He attributed this to Kemp's familiarity with Republican voters who do not believe he is a "RINO," or Republican in name only.

"We'll see if voters make that same determination about Raffensperger," Robinson said. "I would imagine today very few Georgians know who Jody Hice is, outside of his congressional district."

Hice has brought in around $576,000 from donors, according to his most recent campaign filings. While the number stands out sharply against his competition, with Raffensperger raising around $249,000 in the same time, it pales in comparison to the money seen in the top ticket race.

Hice hasn't had the deep pockets to show everyone who he is or that he's Trump-endorsed, which is why Raffensperger has remained competitive in recent polls, according to some strategists.

"This time last year everybody thought Raffensperger's career was over," Robinson said. "But reports of his death were greatly exaggerated."

'Every race is different'

Despite recent polling, Williams said he isn't confident the race is as closely contested as it appears.

"I don't believe the polls that say (Raffensperger) is ahead," he said. "I just have a really hard time believing that. Especially with election integrity being a really big deal for Republicans right now."

He said Kemp's strong performance may have helped Raffensperger but noted a governor's race is worlds apart from a secretary of state race, which has less money behind the campaign and not as much media coverage.

Williams said it's important to understand the nuance of each race matters just as much as a Trump endorsement.

"Every race is different," he said. "It depends on a lot of factors."

In a normal down-the-ballot race, where candidates across the board have little recognition with voters, Trump's endorsement could be highly influential if the endorsed candidate has the resources to make it known, according to Robinson.

Hice hasn't expended those resources, he said. If the race goes to a runoff, Trump may bring more attention to the race and mobilize voters, he said, or the former president could steer clear.

"If Raffensperger finishes first heading into the runoff, Trump may not want to lend his name to a candidate who finished second," he said. "We'll see if he begins to back off. We've seen him back off Perdue a little bit."

If Perdue loses while the secretary of state race heads to a runoff, Trump could lose further interest, he said. But Raffensperger's recognition among voters may help him.

"I don't know whether that's helpful or unhelpful," he said. "But voters know who he is in a way they've never known who the secretary of state was before, except for that period of time Brian Kemp was secretary of state and ran for governor."

With the primary quickly approaching, voters' growing familiarity with the candidates will be a major factor. And how much this national recognition helps or hurts Raffensperger among his party may be the deciding factor.

A potential runoff is also possible as polls continue to show a close race, with a large number of undecided voters. But if Trump pulls his endorsement from Hice ahead of runoff election voting, that could hurt Hice's hopes.

"He hasn't run a race where he would beat Raffensperger without Trump's endorsement," Williams said. " I think he would have problems there for sure."

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Raffensperger, Hice in tightly contested race ahead of primary election