BUFORD, Ga. - Incumbent Brad Raffensperger held off a challenge from his Trump-backed opponent, Rep. Jody Hice, in Georgia's Republican secretary of state primary Tuesday, NBC News projects.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Raffensperger had 51.9 percent of the vote, while Hice had 33.8 percent. Two lesser-known candidates - former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle and former Judge T.J. Hudson - were in single digits.
Because Raffensperger got more than 50 percent of the vote, he was able to avoid a runoff against Hice, which is required under Georgia state law if no candidate wins an outright majority.
As political insiders essentially declared him a dead candidate walking, Raffensperger toured the state. He said he spoke to chambers of commerce and to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs and spread the word that claims of widespread voter fraud were not true.
"I put over 40,000 miles on my truck in the last year, just visiting people, all parts of the state," Raffensperger said Tuesday night.
Raffensperger's win lands a significant blow to the broader movement of candidates backed by former President Donald Trump who have run primarily on the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Tuesday's secretary of state primary pitted an incumbent who refused to bow to pressure from Trump to overturn the election in his favor against a challenger who voted to undo the will of his state's voters. Strategists and politics watchers had viewed the race as a key early test of the endurance of the lies Trump and his allies have perpetuated about the 2020 election.
Veteran Republican consultant Chip Lake said Raffensperger's win was astonishing because, early last year, internal GOP polls showed him pulling less than a fifth of the GOP primary vote.
"This is the biggest political comeback I've seen in this state," Lake said.
Raffensperger will go up against the winner of the Democratic secretary of state runoff election on June 21. State Rep. Bee Nguyen is one of the candidates who will advance; NBC News has not projected who will be her opponent.
Across the board, Georgia voters Tuesday night repudiated Trump-backed candidates who parroted the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him. GOP Gov. Brian Kemp was on track to rout his Trump-backed challenger, David Perdue, by a stunning 50 percentage points, while Attorney General Chris Carr ran ahead of his Trump-endorsed opponent by a similar margin.
Raffensperger had been caught in the crosshairs of Trump and his allies since Joe Biden emerged victorious in the state, winning by just under 11,800 votes, and he explicitly turned down a demand by Trump to overturn the election results. He maintained he did the right thing in standing up to Trump while offering full-throated support for a restrictive voting bill that Kemp signed into state law last year, as well as tough talk about preventing undocumented immigrants from voting.
Raffensperger praised the law Kemp signed, crediting it for increasing turnout, because, he said, it gave people confidence in the election system.
Raffensperger said he told voters the facts when he toured the state: 28,000 Georgia voters simply decided not to cast ballots in the 2020 presidential contest, and all the congressional candidates combined got 33,000 more votes than Trump did.
Hice, a conservative pastor representing a largely rural district in eastern Georgia, built his campaign on claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, taking frequent shots at Raffensperger for the way he handled it and its aftermath.
Raffensperger said Tuesday night, "I don't like to use the word, but he's been lying."
Far more than just who holds the office of Georgia's top elections official was at stake. The future of how elections in the state are overseen - and, possibly, the machinery of how the next president is chosen - was also up for grabs.
It was just one of many races across the country - for secretary of state, attorney general and governor - in which candidates who wrongly claim Trump won the election are running for jobs that have the power to sway the outcomes of future races.
The Georgia GOP primary contest in particular is all but certain to have a direct effect on the 2024 presidential race, because the state, which the Democratic presidential nominee won in 2020 for the first time in 28 years, will again be a critical battleground.
Raffensperger had long been the target of Trump's ire. After the election, Trump clung to numerous conspiracy theories to claim that he had won Georgia, blaming Raffensperger and Kemp for the loss - even as his various assertions were debunked, with multiple recounts and audits confirming the outcome.
Trump, who also lost court challenges over the results, went on to call Raffensperger to urge him again to overturn the results in the days before the Jan. 6, 2021, electoral vote count.
Raffensperger did not oblige, and by March 2021, Trump had persuaded Hice to run.
Hice, in contrast, voted to reject the state-certified election results in Georgia and Pennsylvania on Jan. 6, even after a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. In a since-deleted Instagram post on the morning of Jan. 6, Hice wrote, "This is our 1776 moment."
He was also among several Republican members of Congress who were involved in a planned effort to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election by discarding electoral votes from certain states won by Biden, according to The New York Times, which cited recent testimony given to the House committee investigating the riot.