DUBLIN, Ga. ― “After 2020, I saw what you saw,” John Gordon, the insurgent challenger in Georgia’s upcoming Republican primary for attorney general, told a dozen or so Georgia GOP voters gathered in the dining room of a Golden Corral on Thursday evening. “I was shocked. Frustrated. Mad. Disappointed. I went through those stages of grief. And I felt called to try and do something.”
Gordon, who is attempting to knock off incumbent Attorney General Chris Carr in a race that will conclude Tuesday, has received considerably less attention than former Sen. David Perdue or Rep. Jody Hice, the conservatives waging similar challenges against Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, respectively.
But he is no less enthusiastic in his embrace of the idea that the 2020 presidential election in Georgia was stolen from Donald Trump, a lie that has become the cause célebre of the GOP and, in Georgia, of the trio of Trump-backed candidates challenging the state’s top three Republicans.
“There’s no question in my mind that he won Georgia,” Gordon said in an interview a few minutes later, as he sipped a soft drink across a four-top table inside the restaurant. “This was a coup d’etat, and people need to wake up.”
Trump didn’t win Georgia, as multiple reviews of the election have confirmed. There is no evidence to back the claims Gordon and others have made that fraud marred the outcome of the contest, as multiple state-led investigations have proved. Joe Biden, as Carr has acknowledged, won the contest legitimately.
But in Gordon’s eyes, that admission ― and Carr’s decision to back Kemp and Raffensperger’s decision to certify the election and stand by the investigations that refuted fraud claims ― makes him “totally responsible” for the outcome of the 2020 election.
Along with Hice and Perdue, Gordon has turned the birthplace of the “big lie” into its next major battleground.
It was in Georgia that Trump launched one of his first post-election broadsides against the results, demanding that Raffensperger “find” the roughly 12,000 votes that would have changed the outcome. Gordon was among the Trump supporters who adopted the cause: An attorney by trade, he offered his services pro-bono, he said, for a lawsuit against Fulton County ― home to Atlanta and the most populous county in the state ― that alleged thousands of fraudulent absentee ballots had been submitted on Biden’s behalf.
The case was dismissed, like dozens of others. But Gordon insists the loss in court was a result of the same corrupt system he believes stole the election in the first place, even if he can’t quite offer an explanation for why Republicans like Carr, a devoted Trump supporter, would want to cover up a nefarious scheme to rob his preferred candidate of the presidency.
“I look at complicated issues on a continuum, and I put incompetence on one side and corruption on the other,” Gordon told HuffPost. “And I don’t know where along those lines to place it. I know that they are going to extraordinary lengths to try and convince people that there was no problem, when I know with my own eyes and ears and brain that there were horrendous problems.”
The answer, Gordon asserts to voters, reporters and himself, lies in the sort of investigation he has promised to conduct as attorney general ― one that sounds, from his description of it, not unlike the conspiratorial Cyber Ninjas review of Biden’s victory in Maricopa County, Arizona, a shambolic process that misunderstood Arizona election law, compromised Maricopa County’s voting machines, violated ballot security protocols and found no evidence of fraud even though it was explicitly designed to find something. And that requires voters to choose Tuesday to follow Gordon farther down the rabbit hole of election conspiracies that he and candidates like him have spent two years digging.
The results could have seismic effects even beyond the Georgia GOP, which has already used the guise of fraud to justify new laws that place heavier restrictions on voting and create several election-related crimes, a cause Kemp, Raffensperger and Carr have embraced. They could also have potentially dire implications for American democracy, as election deniers and conspiracy theorists push to take over the machinery of the country’s elections before the 2024 presidential contest.
Two days from the primary, however, it seems as if the “Trump ticket” may be headed for defeat. Carr remains the prohibitive favorite in the race. Like Perdue and to a lesser extent Hice, Gordon for now seems like a long shot, and it’s plausible Trump could whiff in Georgia at a rate that would horrify even the strikeout-prone Atlanta Braves.
But Gordon hasn’t lost hope. Large numbers of Georgians may still be undecided, and Gordon and a super PAC that supports him have unleashed a barrage of ads targeting Carr since the start of early voting in the first week of May. One spot, paid for by the super PAC, alleges that Carr “wrecks fair elections and the America First movement” and asserts that he did “nothing to stop the 2020 stolen election.”
Gordon recently won a straw poll of Georgia Republican activists, and he has spent the final days of the race conducting the occasional radio hit on conservative talk shows whose hosts assert the election was stolen while he crisscrosses Georgia for meetings like Thursday’s, a monthly gathering of the Laurens County GOP.
Tucked halfway between Atlanta and Savannah, Laurens County went 65% for Trump in 2020. Before the event began, Laurens County GOP Chairman William Vaught listed a number of issues that top the list of conservative concerns around here: rising gas prices, high inflation, security along the southern border, and the maintenance of “conservative, Christian values.”
But the monthly meeting was focused entirely on “recently aired evidence of election fraud,” what Gordon would have done about 2020 had he been attorney general then, and what he might do about purported election fraud now.
Gordon arrived a bit late — in the meantime, Vaught opened the meeting with a prayer and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which he enlisted this HuffPost reporter to lead ― but once he entered, he wasted little time on pleasantries and dove right in.
“Stevie Wonder could see the fraud of 2020,” Gordon said. “The only reason you would not see the fraud is if you refuse to look, or if you’re not telling the truth.”
An already sympathetic audience grew even more so as Gordon leaned on his legal background: Before he re-upped his law license to join the suit, he was a businessman, but before that he was a lawyer, he told them, who went two for two at the Supreme Court. He asserted that a judge had acknowledged there was “prima facie evidence of fraud” by asking state election officials to investigate the case’s claims.
But he skated past the fact that the judge later determined that there was no evidence to back the main assertion of the case: that thousands of ballots had been marked perfectly and uniformly, as if by computer. There was no proof of the so-called “pristine ballots” even after investigators specifically examined multiple batches of votes that a county election worker had claimed contained counterfeits.
Carr, for his part, seems mostly uninterested in explicitly relitigating the 2020 election. He told The Associated Press in early May that Biden was the legitimate winner. Carr, who resigned in protest from his role as chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association in April, months after it sponsored a robocall supporting Trump’s Jan. 6 “stop the steal” rally, told the AP that the Capitol insurrection was “one of the dark days in American history” and that he was “infuriated” as it unfolded. (He maintains that neither he nor any other RAGA leader authorized the robocall.)
In a statement to HuffPost, Carr defended his work on the 2020 election and other election-related issues, including his defense of new Georgia election laws that Democrats and voting rights groups have said are meant to suppress the vote.
“I have stood up for election integrity, the Georgia Constitution and the rule of law, and I’m vigorously defending our new election law in court from false attacks by Stacey Abrams and Joe Biden’s Department of Justice,” Carr said.
Carr has also questioned whether Gordon’s renewal of his law license meets the legal requirements to hold the attorney general position, and suggested that Gordon might not be able to beat a Democrat in the fall.
“I can and will beat the Democratic nominee because I have a record in the past and a vision for the future on defending lives, livelihoods and liberties,” he said. “My opponent in the primary will never serve as attorney general. He has admitted he can’t prove he meets the constitutional requirements for the job and that’s disqualifying.”
Otherwise, he has largely shied away from the election, attempting instead to shift the focus of the race to immigration and other issues on which he can argue that he is the true Trump ally: His ads, and others run by RAGA, remind voters that Carr has sued the Biden administration over its immigration policies and assert that Carr is “leading the fight to preserve President Trump’s strong policies to crack down on illegal immigrants.”
This would seem to excite Republican voters, particularly those concerned with issues at the southern border, as Vaught suggested those in attendance Thursday night are. But midway through his stump speech, Gordon’s attempt to talk about something other than the election landed with a thud.
“If Joe Biden is unable to protect our borders, I will,” he said, pausing briefly in anticipation of a response. But the room barely reacted.
“Now usually people just go crazy when I make that statement,” he deadpanned.
The standard conservative fare of the moment — promises to ban teaching of critical race theory and “gender ideology,” and to bar trans youth from playing girls sports — elicited more enthusiasm, but audience questions focused primarily on the election.
Attendees wanted to know about that “recently aired evidence of election fraud,” which turned out to be the Dinesh D’Souza-produced “2000 Mules,” an online movie that largely rehashes already debunked claims about the 2020 election. What about the billionaires funding this? they wanted to know. Why hasn’t the Georgia Bureau of Investigation looked into the fraud?
Gordon insists his denial of the results is not driven by partisan motivations, but by a desperate and necessary bid for truth. As Georgia Republicans often do, he noted that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams had challenged the results of 2018 governor’s election, which she narrowly lost to Kemp ― a claim rooted in Kemp’s mass purging of voter rolls as he served as secretary of state. As Georgia Republicans do not often do, Gordon then insisted that he would investigate that claim too.
He just wants answers, but each answer he gets merely invites a new question.
Raffensperger’s investigation of the election, he said, didn’t examine enough ballots to find those fraudulent ballots it was supposed to be looking for. “I think it was a sham,” he said. “I don’t think it was an investigation. I think it’s window dressing. I think it’s disgraceful.”
Other reviews didn’t go far enough, either. And the media, he claims, refuses to treat claims that have been repeatedly proved baseless by numerous investigations with the gravity Gordon thinks they deserve.
The prevalence of the “big lie,” the GOP’s adherence to it, and recent victories for candidates like Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, an election denier who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection and last week won the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary, have inspired fears among Democrats and democracy experts that Republicans are laying the groundwork to go farther in 2024 ― to invalidate votes and electors in states they lose and fully overturn the election, especially if Trump is on the ballot again. I asked Gordon about those fears: Is it the case that Republicans like him will view any Democratic victory as inherently suspicious and illegitimate?
“I would not make that statement, because I haven’t seen the 2024 election,” Gordon said. “I think that would be very wrong to pre-judge that at this point. But certainly my antennas are up. … I will absolutely accept the outcome of any honest election.”
A victory for Carr, especially if it occurs alongside wins for Kemp and Raffensperger, will likely be seen as a thorough rebuke of Trump and the “big lie.” But the manufactured dispute over the 2020 election, and Georgia Republicans’ response to it, seems likely to dominate the remainder of the attorney general contest no matter who emerges from the primary on Tuesday.
Trump’s attempt to compromise the presidential election still animates Democrats in the state, many of whom see this year’s statewide races as a chance to finish the job they started two years ago, when Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia in nearly 30 years and Sens. Raphael Warnock (D) and Jon Ossoff (D) won runoff races.
Democrats still see Carr as an extension and ally of Trump, a feeling Carr’s ads touting his support for other Trump policies may only further inflame. And they are loath to give Carr too much credit for standing up to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election when that’s a basic constitutional requirement for his job.
“I’m not really in the business of giving people medals for doing the bare minimum and following the law,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, one of two candidates in the Democratic attorney general primary.
Democrats and many Georgia voters are also angry over the passage of the sweeping voting restrictions law Georgia’s GOP-controlled legislature passed in the wake of the insurrection. The law ― which places new restrictions on voting rights, curbs the use of drop boxes, implements stricter ID requirements on absentee ballots and creates new crimes related to elections ― was a direct outgrowth of Trump’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election.
But despite its roots in the same claims of fraud and insecurity that Kemp, Raffensperger and Carr spent the end of 2020 refuting, all three have consistently supported the law. Carr has since defended it against at least five lawsuits that argue the law will disproportionately affect Black voters, disabled Georgians and other minority communities.
The Georgia law, which also allows the Republican legislature to exert unprecedented levels of partisan power over local election boards and the state’s elections as a whole, is merely a dangerous extension of what transpired here at the end of 2020, Jordan argues.
“It really is kind of the mechanism to do what Trump wanted Raffensperger and Kemp and them to do in 2020, but that they said they couldn’t do,” she said. “We’ve got to have someone in the AG’s office who’s going to stand up to that.”
That Carr continues to defend the law, Democrats suggest, means that some element of the 2020 election conspiracy has already won Republican primaries on Tuesday. The question now is whether it will win Georgia in November.
“Nobody’s even hiding it anymore. They are just out and out saying it: The wrong people voted and the wrong people can’t vote again, because we lose,” Jordan said as she unveiled her own voting rights platform in Atlanta on Wednesday. “They’re not even showing you anymore, they’re just telling it to your face.”