Races to oversee elections draw an avalanche of spending
In 2018, Democrat Katie Hobbs spent $1 million in campaign funds running to become Arizona’s secretary of state, narrowly besting Republican Steve Gaynor, who spent $3.2 million in what was the most expensive race in state history for the post that oversees elections.
The record stood for less than four years. This year’s candidates for the state’s top election position have already matched that total and will certainly eclipse it by Election Day on Nov. 8.
Arizona is hardly an exception. It’s just a dramatic example of how races for secretary of state, once sleepy affairs that attracted relatively little attention or campaign money, have become high-priced, partisan battles.
In most states, the secretary of state is the official who oversees voting — an increasingly critical position after former President Donald Trump and his backers began spreading election falsehoods and targeting the offices by encouraging sympathetic candidates to run.
GOP candidates running for secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Nevada have reported raising a total of at least $3.3 million. The Democrats who oppose them have reported raising more — in excess of $10 million — and are being bolstered by additional millions in outside spending by allied groups.
Nationwide, spending on secretary of state races has set a historical record, said Michael Beckel, research director of Issue One, which is tracking races in which people who embrace Trump’s election lies are trying to gain control of the state offices that oversee elections.
“Clearly, people across the political spectrum are taking a new interest in secretary of state races in light of what happened in 2020, and both sides see these positions as critical,” Beckel said.
In Arizona, with Republican Hobbs now running for governor, Democrat Adrian Fontes has reported raising more than $2.4 million so far for the election to replace her as secretary of state. Records show his Republican opponent, state Rep. Mark Finchem, has raised more than $1.8 million.
The Arizona tally doesn’t include millions in outside spending, mainly by Democrats. They are warning that Finchem was present at the Jan. 6, 2021, rally outside the U.S. Capitol, has repeated Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen and said he wouldn’t have certified President Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
To some, the escalating interest in these posts highlights risks to the United States’ unique election system, which is overseen by politicians elected in partisan races.
“The increasing polarization has intensified the vulnerability of the system,” said Kevin Johnson of the Election Reformers Network, which advocates for less partisan elections. “You used to be able to rely on a structure that didn’t require high ethics from officials, but managed to produce that anyway.”
Now, Johnson warned, Trump supporters believe there are few explicit restraints on secretaries of state. He said that’s in contrast to most other democratic countries, where nonpartisan institutions such as appointed panels rather than elected politicians oversee voting.
“No other democracy elects its election leaders,” Johnson said.
Nonpartisan administration of elections has become an applause line for underdog candidates in two Democratic-leaning states.
In Colorado, former county clerk Pam Anderson, a Republican, argues that her opponent, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, has acted in a way that is too partisan. In Washington state, Julie Anderson, an independent, is running against Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, arguing the position should be explicitly nonpartisan.
In contrast, in Wisconsin, many Republicans angry at Biden’s 2020 win in the state seek to dissolve the state’s bipartisan elections commission and vest election management in one or more partisan officials.
The nonpartisan stance also has been embraced by some Democratic secretaries of state, who are careful to draw a line between their party and their job. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an interview this summer that she has avoided involvement with the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a group chaired by Griswold that is spending to support the party’s statewide election officials.
“As I have seen my colleagues become more partisan, it’s something -- that for me -- I feel just goes beyond what is appropriate for a secretary of state to do,” Benson said.
Still, she has received at least $2.6 million from the Democratic group as she battles Republican Kristina Karamo, a community college instructor who spread false information about purported election fraud in November 2020 and beyond. Benson herself has reported raising more than $4 million for her re-election campaign, compared to more than $900,000 by Karamo.
Democrats say they don’t need to apologize for spending big, arguing that they’re defending the nation’s foundational principles by trying to keep candidates who spread false claims about elections from overseeing voting.
“We can’t take any risks when it comes to our democracy, and frankly our volunteers and donors have met the moment,” said Kim Rogers, executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, which has pledged to spend at least $25 million on races this fall.
There’s no parallel Republican Party effort. The GOP’s group involved in secretary of state races, the Republican State Leadership Committee, said it’s spending little this year other than to support the reelection effort of Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who defied Trump’s demands that he be declared the winner of that swing state in 2020.
Andrew Romeo, a spokeswoman for the leadership committee, which also supports GOP state legislative candidates, contended in a statement that Democrats are the ones polarizing voting issues.
“Democrats – fueled by their liberal billionaire donors -- are dumping unprecedented money into secretary of state races this year because they have given up on American democracy and an election system that has worked for 200 years and want to stack these offices with their far-left allies,” Romeo said.
Still, Democrats note that Republicans have spent heavily on non-campaign election infrastructure in the midterms. Conservative donors have funded operations to recruit and train poll watchers and to enlist activists to work at polling places in November.
Funders, whose identifies do not have to be disclosed, also have paid for slick documentaries promulgating election lies like the often-debunked “2000 Mules.” Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, told The Associated Press in August that he’s spent $20 million investigating the 2020 election.
Byrne’s spending includes funding an organization called The America Project, which has donated $218,000 to a group called Conservatives for Election Integrity. That group was founded by Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada. The organization is intended to support a coalition of secretary of state candidates like Marchant who question the result of the 2020 presidential election. The America Project’s spending accounts for roughly half the $429,000 the group has reported raising.
Byrne also has donated $5,000 to Marchant and $2,900 to Karamo in Michigan, according to the report from Issue One on the funding of election deniers’ campaigns. Other prominent funders include Trump’s own political group, Save America PAC, which donated $5,000 to Karamo and $5,000 to Finchem in Arizona. Also, Lewis Topper, who runs a network of fast-food restaurant franchises, donated more than $17,000 total to Finchem, Karamo and Marchant, according to the report.
Still, that’s small compared to the funding on the Democratic side. The Democratic group iVote, for example, announced on Monday $5 million in new spending against Finchem in Arizona, part of $11 million in spending against election denier secretary of state nominees.
Ellen Kurz, a veteran Democratic operative who runs iVote, said there is no comparison between her group and those that are funding election deniers.
“They are telling you that if their chosen candidate doesn’t win, they will disregard the will of the people,” she said. Democrats, she said, have “a nonpartisan idea — every registered voter, if they’re Democrat, Republican or Independent, should be able to cast a vote.”