In 2018, Democrat Katie Hobbs spent $1 million in campaign funds to become Arizona secretary of state, narrowly beating Republican Steve Gaynor, who spent $3.2 million in the most expensive race in state history for the post overseeing elections.
The record stood for less than four years. This year’s candidates for the state’s highest elected office have already matched that total and are sure to eclipse it by Election Day on Nov. 8.
Arizona is hardly an exception. It’s just a dramatic example of how secretary of state races, once dormant affairs that attracted relatively little attention or campaign money, have become expensive, partisan battles.
In most states, the secretary of state is the official who oversees the vote — an increasingly critical position after former President Donald Trump and his supporters began spreading falsehoods about the election and targeting offices by encouraging sympathetic candidates to run.
Republican candidates running for secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Nevada reported raising a total of at least $3.3 million. Democrats opposing them reported raising more — more than $10 million — and were backed by millions more in outside spending by allied groups.
Across the country, spending on secretary of state races has set an all-time high, said Michael Beckel, director of research at First Edition, which tracks the races in which people who buy into Trump’s campaign lies are trying to gain control of state offices that oversee elections.
“It’s clear that people across the political spectrum are taking a renewed interest in secretary of state races in light of what happened in 2020, and both parties see these positions as critical,” Beckel said.
In Arizona, where Republican Hobbs is now running for governor, Democrat Adrian Fontes reported raising more than $2.4 million so far for the election to replace her as secretary of state. His Republican opponent, state Rep. Mark Finchem, has raised more than $1.8 million, the records show.
The Arizona calculation does not include millions in outside spending, mostly by Democrats. They warn Finchem was present at a Jan. 6, 2021, rally outside the US Capitol, repeated Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election and said he would not endorse President Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
For some, the escalating interest in these offices underscores the risks to the United States’ unique election system, which is overseen by politicians elected in partisan races.
“Increasing polarization has increased the vulnerability of the system,” said Kevin Johnson of the Electoral Reform Network, which advocates for smaller party elections. “You used to be able to rely on a structure that didn’t require high ethics from officials, but you still managed to produce it.”
Now, Johnson warned, Trump supporters believe there are few explicit restrictions on secretaries of state. He said this is unlike most other democratic countries, where non-partisan institutions, such as appointed commissions, rather than elected politicians, oversee the vote.
“No other democracy elects its leaders,” Johnson said.
The non-partisan administration of the election has become an applause for weak candidates in two democratically oriented states.
In Colorado, former County Clerk Pam Anderson, a Republican, claims her opponent, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, acted in a way that was too partisan. In Washington state, Julie Anderson, an independent, is running against Democratic Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, arguing that the position should be explicitly nonpartisan.
By contrast, in Wisconsin, many Republicans angered by Biden’s 2020 state victory are pushing to disband the state’s bipartisan election commission and leave the election to one or more party officials.
The non-partisan position has also been embraced by some Democratic secretaries of state, who are careful to draw a line between their party and work. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in an interview this summer that she avoided involvement with the Democratic Secretaries of State Association, a group chaired by Griswold that spends funds supporting the party’s statewide election officials.
“As I’ve seen my colleagues become more partisan, it’s something — that to me — I feel goes beyond what’s appropriate for a secretary of state to do,” Benson said.
Still, she received at least $2.6 million from a Democratic group as she battles Republican Kristina Karamo, a community college instructor who spread false information about alleged election fraud in November 2020 and beyond. Benson herself reported raising more than $4 million for her re-election campaign, compared to more than $900,000 made by Karamo.
Democrats say they need not apologize for the big spending, arguing they are defending the nation’s founding principles by trying to prevent candidates who spread false claims about the election from overseeing the vote.
“We can’t take any chances with our democracy, and frankly, our volunteers and donors have stepped up,” 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 are no parallel efforts by the Republican Party. A GOP group involved in the secretary of state race, the Republican State Leadership Committee, said it is spending little this year except to support the re-election effort of Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who defied Trump’s demands to be declared the winner of that election. shaky state in 2020
Andrew Romeo, a spokeswoman for the leadership committee, which also supports GOP congressional candidates, said in a statement that Democrats are polarizing ballot issues.
“Democrats — spurred on by their liberal billionaire donors — are throwing unprecedented amounts of money into secretary of state races this year because they’ve abandoned American democracy and an electoral system that has worked for 200 years and want to merge these offices with their distant…leftist allies,” said Romeo.
Still, Democrats note that Republicans have spent heavily on off-campaign election infrastructure in the midterms. Conservative donors funded operations to recruit and train poll observers and hire activists to work at polling stations in November.
Funders, whose identities cannot be disclosed, have also paid for slick documentaries that publicize election lies like the oft-debunked “2,000 mules.” Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com, told The Associated Press in August that he spent $20 million investigating the 2020 election.
Byrne’s spending includes funding from an organization called The America Project, which donated $218,000 to a group called Conservatives for Election Integrity. That group was founded by Jim Marchant, the Republican candidate for secretary of state in Nevada. The organization aims to support a coalition of secretary of state candidates like Marchant who are challenging the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The American Project’s spending is about half of the $429,000 the group reported raising.
Byrne also donated $5,000 to Marchant and $2,900 to Karam in Michigan, according to the election deniers’ first-issue campaign finance report. Other notable donors include Trump’s political group, Save America PAC, which donated $5,000 to Karam and $5,000 to Finchem in Arizona. Also, Lewis Topper, who runs a chain of fast-food restaurant franchises, donated a total of more than $17,000 to Finchem, Karam 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 $5 million in new spending against Finchem in Arizona on Monday, part of $11 million in spending against election-denying secretary of state candidates.
Ellen Kurz, the veteran Democratic operative who runs iVote, said there is no comparison between her group and those who fund the election deniers.
“They are telling you that if their chosen candidate does not win, they will ignore the will of the people,” she said. Democrats, she said, have a “nonpartisan idea — every registered voter, whether they’re a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent, should be able to vote.”
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