PHOENIX — Democrats and Republicans are preparing to pour millions of dollars into races for secretary of state in half the states next year amid a new recognition that those who oversee the electoral process can play pivotal roles in deciding an election’s outcome.
The focus follows former President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar’s siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: ‘You are immune to shame’ Sunday shows – Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE’s pressure campaign on state leaders to overturn the results of last year’s election, and as Republican-controlled state legislatures advance and pass electoral reform bills that would limit access to absentee ballots, drop boxes and other avenues to voting.
“These offices used to be kind of sleepy offices, they were personality contests and the people who ran for them were paper-pushers,” said Michael Adams (R), Kentucky’s secretary of state and the vice chair of the Republican Secretaries of State Committee, a group that will back GOP candidates. “We’re going to be uniquely a focus in a way that we never have been before. Our side is going to be prepared for that.”
Candidates are already drawing battle lines in contests that will determine which party controls the electoral experience voters will face in the next presidential election.
Democrats cast the races as critical to ensuring the future of American democracy, in the face of Trump’s unprecedented assault on historical norms and the truth.
“We need to stand with the American people, because American voters, both Democrats and Republicans, overwhelmingly support having free and fair elections,” said Jena Griswold (D), Colorado’s secretary of state and chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State. “Democracy will be on the ballot in 2022.”
For Republicans, the situation is more complicated, and the message more muddled.
Some in Republican primaries, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), will promote their efforts to secure elections while expanding access. Others, like Raffensperger’s primary challenger, Rep. Jody HiceJody Brownlow HiceHouse at war over Jan. 6 inquiry, mask mandate Georgia secretary of state calls for Fulton County elections officials to be fired One-third of GOP candidates have embraced Trump election claims: report MORE (R), will back Trump’s false claims about election fraud; in an interview with CNN in May, Hice said Trump would have won Georgia, a state he lost by nearly 12,000 votes, had the race been “fair.”
Adams, who helped advance bipartisan election reform that won broad support from both Democrats in the legislature and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), said the GOP primaries would split between two factions.
“You’re gong to have two different types of candidates running on our side, I’m talking about primaries. You’re going to have bomb throwers and you’re going to have people like me and [Washington Secretary of State] Kim Wyman and [Ohio Secretary of State] Frank LaRose,” Adams said, pointing to Republican colleagues in other states — one President BidenJoe BidenGOP report on COVID-19 origins homes in on lab leak theory READ: The .2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE won, and one in Trump’s column — who won high marks for election administration in 2020.
“If you’re a secretary of state, you work for everybody, and you’re personally held accountable for the quality of your election system, not just integrity, but the whole customer service experience,” Adams said. “Your handling of yourself needs to be apolitical.”
Though it is early in the election cycle, Arizona is already shaping up as a key battleground between all three factions: Former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes (D), who administered the 2020 elections in the state’s largest county, and state House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D) are vying for the Democratic nomination to replace Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who is running for governor.
On the Republican side, the leading contenders are state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, state Rep. Mark Finchem and state Rep. Shawnna Bolick, three Republicans who reflect the current schism among their party’s elected leaders.
Ugenti-Rita is chair of the Senate Elections Committee and the author of several bills passed this year aimed at reforming election administration in ways critics say will restrict voter access. She voted to fund an audit of Maricopa County’s election results after Biden became the first Democrat to carry the state since former President Clinton, but in recent weeks she has turned against what she called a “botched” process.
Finchem has no such qualms. Attired in a trademark cowboy hat, he has appeared on far-right networks and podcasts associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory to claim the audit would flip Arizona’s electoral votes back to Trump. Footage shows Finchem attended the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, though there is no evidence he entered the building.
Bolick went one step farther than Finchem: She introduced legislation last year that would have permitted the state legislature to reject a secretary of state’s certification of presidential electors in a simple majority vote, effectively nullifying the legitimate results of a presidential election.
At a recent Phoenix rally that Trump attended, hosted by the conservative student group Turning Point USA, which has recently become a hive of anti-vaccination propaganda, Ugenti-Rita was booed off stage.
In an interview last week, Ugenti-Rita, who has made election reform her area of expertise during a decade in the legislature, said voters are more interested now in electoral rules than they had been in the past.
“I get a lot more from the press than I have previously, but the same group of people that were interested in it years ago are still interested in it today,” she said. “It’s definitely percolating as a more mainstream issue” after the 2020 elections, when Democrats pushed administrative changes to election rules in the midst of the pandemic.
“They kind of needed a vessel, and they used COVID as a vessel to weaken our election system,” Ugenti-Rita said.
Twenty-six states will elect secretaries of state in next year’s elections, including many that will be at the heart of the race for the White House in 2024. Republicans are defending 14 states they currently control, including Nevada, Iowa, Ohio and Georgia. Democrats are running to save seats in 12 states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Those who win office will have the immediate power to oversee elections, business registrations and in some states agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles. They will also have a critical stepping stone to higher office: Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempGeorgia Gov. Kemp says FDA needs to upgrade its authorization for vaccines The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Savannah becomes first major city in Georgia to reinstate masks MORE (R), Oregon Gov. Kate BrownKate BrownOregon mandates masks in schools, state buildings Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof eyeing gubernatorial bid in Oregon: report MORE (D), Sens. Alex PadillaAlex PadillaBiden backs effort to include immigration in budget package Biden to meet with 11 Democratic lawmakers on DACA: report Nearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to ‘promptly’ allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards MORE (D-Calif.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntBiden’s bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Facebook – Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon passes on Senate campaign MORE (R-Mo.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTop Democrat: ‘A lot of spin’ coming from White House on infrastructure Schumer’s moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch MORE (D-Ohio) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Manchin on reported boos at Democratic luncheon: ‘I heard a lot of nos’ Schumer: Democrats ‘on track’ to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget MORE (D-W.Va.) and Reps. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeHere’s what Congress is reading at the beach this summer Overnight Health Care: FDA adds new warning to J&J COVID-19 vaccine | WHO chief pushes back on Pfizer booster shot | Fauci defends Biden’s support for recommending vaccines ‘one on one’ HHS spending bill advances without Hyde Amendment MORE (R-Okla.), Chris Jacobs (R-N.Y.), Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinBiden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Cybersecurity bills gain new urgency after rash of attacks Senate unanimously approves Jen Easterly to lead DHS cyber agency MORE (D-R.I.), Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsGOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message The Hill’s Morning Report – Bidens to visit Surfside, Fla., collapse site Trump, GOP return to border to rev up base MORE (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) all served as secretaries of state before winning their current posts.
Races that have in the past attracted little outside attention are now likely to be the targets of millions in outside spending. The Republican State Leadership Committee, the umbrella organization overseeing the Secretaries of State Committee, has raised $6.5 million so far this cycle. Their Democratic counterparts have raised $2 million and are budgeting for $15 million for the entire cycle.
“We can win a lot of these seats,” Griswold said. “The urgency is at an all-time high.”