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Georgia Republicans will choose between candidates that supported or denounced Trump

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This year in primaries across the country, Republican voters have choices. Will they support candidates who, like former President Donald Trump, falsely say the 2020 election was stolen? Or will they support Republican candidates who, in many cases, stood up to Trump's pressure and told the truth? NPR's Miles Parks went to Georgia, where that division is on full display in a race to oversee the state's elections.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: In a restaurant in Lawrenceville, Ga., called The Flying Machine, you can hear planes landing at the airfield next door.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE FLYING)

PARKS: The TV over the bars turned to Fox News. And for the dozens of people who came to eat onion rings and fried chicken salads on a Thursday night, the topic was the same one it's been for well over a year now - voter fraud.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How many feel that the 2020 elections were a little sketchy?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter) Everybody should be raising their hands.

PARKS: This is the final stop in a three-day election integrity tour put on by U.S. Representative Jody Hice, who has a full bingo card when it comes to election denialism - objected to the 2020 election results at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, check, endorsed by former President Trump, check. And now the former pastor is running to oversee voting in Georgia as the secretary of state. Here he is in Lawrenceville.

JODY HICE: If ever that sacred trust, the voice of the people is ever compromised or violated, then we, as a republic, are in serious, serious trouble. And I believe with all my heart that was broken in Georgia in this last election cycle.

PARKS: There's never been evidence to support those claims. But according to polls, a majority of Republican voters nationwide still believe them, which is why the incumbent in this race, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, now has multiple primary challengers. Hice's campaign posters say Boot Brad on the back. Raffensperger came to fame after the 2020 race, when former President Trump called to pressure him to change Georgia's election results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.

PARKS: Raffensperger didn't go along with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.

PARKS: But experts worry that election-denying candidates like Hice will be more willing than Raffensperger was to subvert the will of the voters in future races. In an interview with NPR, for instance, Hice said he thought it was appropriate for Trump to call Raffensperger after the election, and he declined to answer how he would have responded to Trump's request.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HICE: The president was clearly - and from the way I listen to it - was clearly saying there were obvious problems in this election. And do your job, investigate, make sure we have the right - and look; that's a reasonable request.

PARKS: To be clear, there were no major issues with the 2020 election, and Raffensperger has spent most of the past year receiving death threats and trying to fight back against those sorts of narratives. When he was first elected, secretary of state was still thought of as a sleepy bureaucratic position. But 2020 clearly changed that. After a Rotary Club event in Dalton, Ga., I asked Raffensperger if he agrees with people who say democracy itself is on the ballot this year.

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, truth certainly is on the ballot 'cause I think truth matters. And I'm standing on the truth. And the people running against me aren't. And I'd rather be in my spot than their spot.

PARKS: Races like this one are playing out in other swing states as well. An NPR analysis found at least 20 candidates running for secretary of state positions nationwide who questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election, meaning voters, now more than ever, need to be paying attention to these sorts of races, says Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

ADRIENNE JONES: I mean, you need a game plan. You need to know what the secretary of state is or the public service commission. Like, what is that role? You need to know who the judges are. It's got to become a more active, full-bodied engagement.

PARKS: One early sign that these secretary of state races are captivating people is the money. The Brennan Center for Justice found that campaign donations in the Georgia race are four times what they were at the same point in the last cycle and 30 times more than they were in the election before that. Miles Parks, NPR News, Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "PRECIPICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.