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Georgia's elections chief caught in GOP crosshairs

Georgia's top elections official has found himself in the middle of a political firestorm as Republicans step up attacks on him amid President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills MORE's refusal to concede the election.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly and forcefully defended his office’s handling of the election, pushing back on false claims of widespread voting irregularities and systemic fraud by Trump, who narrowly lost the state to President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Senators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video MORE.

That push-back has earned him the ire of the president and his allies, including Georgia’s two Republican senators, who have accused Raffensperger of mismanaging the election and called on him to resign.

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The attacks on Raffensperger, a Republican himself, aren’t without a political purpose.

Sens. David PerdueDavid PerdueThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Georgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting Perdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock MORE (R-Ga.) and Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Georgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing MORE (R-Ga.) are both facing competitive runoff elections against well-funded Democrats in January. Their ardent defenses of Trump’s fraud claims and willingness to attack Raffensperger reflect the belief that breaking with the president could mean alienating his loyal voter base, whose support they will need to win their runoffs.

“The base vote here is conservative — it’s for Trump,” one veteran GOP operative in Georgia said. “They’re making a bet that sticking with the president will pay off and if that means throwing another Republican under the bus, they’ll do that.”

Raffensperger took the extraordinary step last week of ordering a hand recount of nearly 5 million ballots, a move that he said would “help build confidence” in the election results but one that Democrats decried as a capitulation to Trump and his allies.

But Raffensperger has denied that his decision to initiate a recount was influenced by outside pressure. Indeed, he has fought back against the criticism from within his own party.

He has refused the calls for his resignation and on Monday accused fellow Republicans of pressuring him to toss out legally case ballots in an effort to swing the state’s election results in Trump’s favor.

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In an interview with The Washington Post, Raffensperger said that Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts McConnell backs Garland for attorney general MORE (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most prominent allies in the Senate, had asked him about Georgia’s signature-matching law and whether there was a way to disqualify mail ballots in counties with higher rates of non-matching signatures.

Raffensperger told the Post that Graham appeared to be suggesting that the state eliminate legal ballots.

“It sure looked like he was wanting to go down that road,” he said.

Graham denied putting any pressure on Raffensperger to toss out ballots, telling reporters on Monday that he had simply asked how Georgia’s signature-matching requirement works.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Graham said. “If he feels threatened by that conversation, he’s got a problem. I actually thought it was a good conversation.”

Raffensperger has also criticized Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Perdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock Loeffler leaves door open to 2022 rematch against Warnock MORE (R-Ga.), who is overseeing the Trump campaign’s efforts in Georgia amid the recount and has repeated the president’s false claims of widespread voting irregularities, calling him a “liar” and “failed candidate.” Collins had run unsuccessfully for Loeffler’s Senate seat, notching a third-place finish in the Nov. 3 general election.

The back-and-forth between Raffensperger and his fellow Republicans underscores a growing intraparty rift between GOP state officials and Georgia’s federal officeholders, who have continued to stand behind Trump amid his refusal to acknowledge his defeat in the presidential race.

The president has spent the two weeks since Election Day making the false claim that the election was rigged against him and that he actually won the race. In reality, there is no evidence that the election results were marred by widespread fraud or irregularities.

One issue surfaced on Monday, however, when Georgia election officials announced that the ongoing recount had uncovered some 2,600 votes in Floyd County that had not been previously reported to the state.

Gabriel Sterling, who manages Georgia’s voting system, said that Raffensperger and other elections officials were “perturbed” by the error, but noted that they had not seen similar issues in other counties.

The recently discovered votes, he said, are expected to change the margin between Trump and Biden by about 800 votes, well short of the 14,000-vote lead that Biden currently holds. Raffensperger also announced on Tuesday that an audit of voting machines in the state had been completed and found no evidence of foul play.

But Trump’s campaign has pointed to the error in Floyd County as validation of the president’s claims of irregularities. Trump also railed against both Raffensperger and Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempGeorgia teachers to be next in line in state for coronavirus vaccine The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing MORE (R) over the weekend, calling the ongoing recount effort a “scam” that “means nothing.”

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It’s not the first time Raffensperger has faced scrutiny for his management of Georgia’s elections.

In his nearly two years on the job, he has been the target of multiple lawsuits and criticism from Democrats, who have accused him of voter suppression and intimidation. Georgia’s bungled primary in June was also widely pinned on a new voting system introduced by Raffensperger.

But he received high marks for his handling of the November election, which saw record turnout and no major hiccups, and Democrats have largely refrained from criticizing him in recent weeks.

Stacey Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate and one of Georgia’s most prominent Democrats, acknowledged during an appearance on ABC’s “The View” that she had butted heads with Raffensperger in the past, but waved off Loeffler and Perdue’s calls for him to step down, saying that their criticism of Georgia’s elections was flawed. 

“I have been critical because he has been wrong,” Abrams said of Raffensperger. “In this case, we know that there remain challenges with our elections system, but none of those challenges are the ones that Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are levying.”

Responding to Raffensperger’s criticism on Monday, however, Collins said that both Democrats and Republicans should be able to unite around their mutual distrust of the Georgia secretary of state.

“In a year of political division in Georgia, few things have unified Republicans and Democrats,” Collins tweeted. “One of them is Brad Raffensperger’s incompetence as Secretary of State.”