Rep. Jody Hice says former President Donald Trump would've won the 2020 election in Georgia if it were "fair." He says that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sent out 700,000 ballot applications to "illegal voters," and that there's going to be "some fraud mixed up in there."
To Hice, those "hundreds and hundreds of thousands of votes" were potentially enough to "far outweigh" President Joe Biden's certified victory of roughly 12,000 votes in his state.
Hice's various misleading and false claims attempt to undercut the validity of Biden's victory. But Hice, with Trump's support, is now the leading Republican candidate to oust Raffensperger in 2022 and run the 2024 elections for the state of Georgia. It's a trend in battleground states across the country as Trump loyalists seek to become their state's top election officials, which could give them outsized influence in a close race in the 2024 presidential election.
"I believe if there was a fair election, it would be a different outcome," Hice told CNN when asked if he believed Trump won Georgia. "Absolutely."
"I do not believe for one moment that Georgia is a blue state," he added.
Trump berated Raffensperger as he resisted the pressure from the then-President to subvert the will of the state's voters and try to deny Joe Biden's win in Georgia, the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. When asked about the incumbent Republican, Hice responded, "The better question is: What did he do right?"
Raffensperger has continued to push back against Trump and his allies' false claims that the election was stolen from him.
"We had the numbers that just never supported the contentions and allegations that were made," Raffensperger told CNN. "And really at the end of the day what it gets down to is: is it the rule of law, or is it the rule of man?"
Hice's 2022 campaign to rewrite the 2020 outcome is the most prominent example of Republicans still seeking to undermine the integrity of last year's election. In Arizona, the state Senate is attempting to audit its largest county, while Republican state legislatures in Texas, Florida and Georgia have introduced new voter laws after Trump launched his assault on the ballot box. And Republicans in Nevada, Arizona and Michigan are campaigning for secretary of state jobs after questioning the validity of 2020 elections.
Raffensperger rejects claims of a 'fraudulent' election
In Georgia, Raffensperger has rejected Hice's repeated claim that there were hundreds of thousands of "illegal voters" in his restrained manner. "That's not correct," Raffensperger said.
The secretary's office noted that the state sent out absentee ballot applications to nearly 7 million active registered voters for the primary last year, which was signature matched. Raffensperger said his office received back 100,000 applications with returned addresses and put them on an active pending list. The office said it then implemented for the general election an online absentee ballot request portal that required photo identification.
Raffensperger told CNN that he would "continue to run on the truth." He referred to a letter he sent on January 6 to Hice and other Georgia Republican lawmakers refuting a number of false allegations regarding voting machines, absentee ballots -- and felons, underage and dead people voting.
"I stood on running an honest and fair election — and those were the results," he added. "As a Republican, I was disappointed in the results, but those are the correct results in the state of Georgia."
Raffensperger acknowledged that his 2022 reelection campaign would run into resistance from Trump supporters. "Obviously, we have a group of people that are still working through a lot of the issues and disappointment from the last cycle," Raffensperger said.
But he argued that Georgia would want "honest brokers, people that are going to make sure we have honest, fair elections with the appropriate balance of accessibility with security."
And he charged that Hice knew better, pointing out that the congressman amplified a claim on Twitter that a voting machine flipped votes from Trump to Biden — and didn't correct it when his office notified him of the danger in spreading disinformation. The Georgia secretary of state also attacked Hice for not passing election legislation in Congress.
"I think what people are looking for is someone that they know that they can trust, someone who has integrity, and then someone that actually is pretty good with numbers," Raffensperger said.
But many Georgia Republicans simply believe Trump won Georgia -- or was the victim of unfair election rules.
David Belle Isle, the former mayor of Alpharetta who lost to Raffensperger in 2018, and former Treutlen County Judge T.J. Hudson are also running in the Republican primary for Georgia secretary of state. Hudson told CNN that there wasn't fraud in rural Georgia, where he's from, but said he couldn't speak for other parts of the state because he "wasn't there." Belle Isle said the secretary "put Georgia in the worst-case scenario where we can't prove an election fair or fraudulent."
Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican eying a Senate bid in Georgia, backs Hice for the job -- and was critical of a settlement reached between the Georgia secretary of state's office and Democratic organizations over signature matching, an issue Trump railed against even as Georgia election officials said it had no influence over the race.
"The Constitution is quite clear that it's the responsibility of the legislative branch, of the state legislative branch, to run the elections and certainly I would have hoped that he would have gone through and gotten input from them before he did that," Carter said.
Asked if he disputes the outcome of the race after Georgia's three recounts, Carter said: "No, but I do believe that the settlement agreement led to the possibility for some inaccuracy in the election."
Raffensperger defends election law after backlash
While Raffensperger's feud with Trump clearly hurt his standing within the Georgia GOP, some Republicans say that the secretary has an opportunity to rally the party after he came out in support of the state's new elections law, which caused a backlash among Democrats and some major corporations in the state.
The bill expanded early voting to a statewide minimum of 17 days, rather than 16, and shortened the federal runoff period after the bruising Senate campaigns last cycle. It also effectively cut the number of drop boxes and the period in which voters may request an absentee ballot from about six months to less than three. It barred giving food and water to voters waiting in line (with an exception for unattended water stations set up by election workers), while raising the bar for absentee ballots from providing a signature to identification like a driver's license or the last four digits of a Social Security number.
It also reduced Raffensperger's power, removing him as a voting member of the State Election Board and granting the Republican-controlled legislature more control over the Board.
But Raffensperger has defended the law. He told CNN that both Republicans and Democrats have sued Georgia over signature match absentee balloting, and that verification by matching drivers licenses and birth dates were more secure, "objective" measures.
"This process is utilized in both red and blue states," Raffensperger said. "This is something I supported when I ran in 2018."
Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake said that Raffensperger's defense of the bill could help him in his reelection campaign.
"Without the Democrat misinformation surrounding the elections bill, I don't know that there would be a path for Brad Raffensperger in a Republican primary, and there still might not be," Lake said. "But with the elections bill, there's an opportunity for Brad that didn't exist with Republicans before that bill."
Georgia Democrats are hoping that they can take the secretary's office, which they haven't held in over a decade. State Rep. Bee Nguyen recently announced her candidacy after helping lead the charge against Republicans' effort to restrict voter rights.
"We can have a secretary of state in Georgia that believes in upholding facts and truth, and following the law, but also believes in protecting the right to vote, and expanding access to voting versus voter restriction," Nguyen told CNN.
CNN's Daniel Dale contributed to this report.