Secretary of State Races: Election Deniers Carry GOP Banner in Several Key States
A Commentary By Louis Jacobson
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— With most primaries now complete, a majority of the nation’s competitive secretary of state races pit a Republican nominee aligned with former President Donald Trump against a relatively mainstream Democrat.
— This could benefit Democrats by being able to run against less electable Republicans — or it may not matter if a Republican wave crests high enough, carrying even the most controversial Republican nominees to victory. Either way, voters in many states will face a stark choice about how elections are run in the future.
— Looking at this year’s 27 secretary of state races, we find 10 that appear to be competitive between the parties, at least for now. In another 10 races, the GOP is in the driver’s seat, while in another 7 races, the Democrats have a significant edge.
Updating the secretary of state races
With most primaries now complete, a majority of the nation’s competitive secretary of state races pit a Republican nominee aligned with former President Donald Trump against a relatively mainstream Democrat.
This could benefit Democrats by being able to run against less electable Republicans — or it may not matter if a Republican wave crests high enough, carrying even the most controversial Republican nominees to victory.
What is clear is that voters in many states will face a stark choice about how elections are run in the future.
Trump is continuing to make election fraud the centerpiece of his effort to return to the presidency, despite the lack of any evidence that there was widespread voting fraud when Trump lost the 2020 election. This makes the outcome of the 27 secretary of state races in 2022 more important than ever. In most (but not all) states, the secretary of state is given significant oversight of the election process — the very election processes that Trump is targeting.
This is our second assessment of the secretary of state races so far this cycle (here’s the first, from last December), with more to come.
With a few primaries still to be decided, several Republican nominees in competitive secretary of state races this November fall clearly into the election-denier category: Mark Finchem of Arizona, Jim Marchant in Nevada, and Audrey Trujillo in New Mexico. A fourth, Kristina Karamo in Michigan, is set to see her nomination by convention formally approved by the party later this month.
Two others, Kim Crockett in Minnesota and Diego Morales in Indiana, have taken some stances that could qualify them for this category. And in Pennsylvania — where the governor is able to appoint the secretary of state — the GOP gubernatorial nominee, Doug Mastriano, is also a leading election denier.
In only a few states are mainstream Republicans running in competitive races for secretary of state. These include Georgia and Colorado, where mainstream GOP candidates defeated primary rivals aligned with Trump, and Iowa, where an incumbent is running for reelection.
Here’s a rundown on the secretary of state contests as they stand now. First, we’ll look at the 10 states where the secretary of state contest appears to be competitive, at least for now. Then, we’ll look at the 10 races that look solid for the GOP and the 7 races that look solid for the Democrats.
Competitive races where a Republican aligned with the Trump wing is facing a Democrat
This category includes 6 races in which the GOP, to one degree or another, is running a secretary of state candidate who has backed or echoed dubious election claims. There are some variations in the intensity of these candidates’ election-denial beliefs; the candidates in Arizona and Nevada probably offer the clearest examples of election deniers running as the GOP nominee, with the Michigan nominee likely to join them once she is officially named.
For now, we consider each of these races to be competitive. However, the nominees that GOP voters have chosen give Democrats a significant opening to paint their opponent as out of the mainstream, so some of these may move off the board as uncompetitive by the fall. For now, though, we’ll refrain from offering a rating until the general election comes into clearer focus.
Arizona: Open seat (Katie Hobbs, D, is running for governor)
In Arizona, a Donald Trump-to-Joe Biden state and the home of a months-long “audit” initiated by Trump allies, GOP primary voters chose an entire slate of Trump-endorsed candidates for the top 4 offices that are up in 2022: governor, senator, attorney general, and secretary of state.
In the secretary of state race, Trump endorsed-state Rep. Mark Finchem has floated banning early voting despite its wide use in Arizona and making all ballots be counted by hand, which experts say is impractical. Finchem defeated several other GOP candidates, including one endorsed by outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who had backed several more establishment candidates in the various primary races.
On the Democratic side, Adrian Fontes, the former county recorder for Maricopa County, won the primary over state Rep. Reginald Bolding, the current House Minority Leader. Fontes comes with a bit of baggage — he lost his bid for a new term in 2020 after a tenure in which the courts stopped him from sending out an early ballot to every registered Democrat.
Nevada: Open seat (Barbara Cegavske, R, is term-limited)
Nevada is another Biden-won state where Trump made a robust push after the election in 2020 to question the results. The seat is coming open because Cegavske is term-limited; she was respected by establishment Republicans as well as Democrats, but the state party, controlled by the Trump wing of the party, censured her for declaring that the 2020 election did not involve significant fraud.
In a contested primary, GOP voters nominated former state assemblyman and unsuccessful 2020 congressional candidate Jim Marchant. He has also been an announced guest at events with voter fraud conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell and figures linked to QAnon, according to the Nevada Independent. Marchant has urged getting rid of Dominion voting machines, a brand that Trump allies have targeted, without evidence, as being faulty; limiting voting to a single day; and ending mail balloting, Vice reported.
The Democratic nominee is Cisco Aguilar, a former chair of the Nevada Athletic Commission and a onetime congressional aide. He’s considered a credible candidate, has a solid war chest, and is well-liked among those who know him, observers say. But he is not especially well-known among voters.
New Mexico: Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D)
Toulouse Oliver, who has been in office since 2016, is running for a new term and has not inspired too much controversy.
She will face Audrey Trujillo, who has been serving as the state Republican Hispanic political director. On her website, Trujillo touted her work on behalf of “the grassroots efforts to pursue a forensic audit that would help expose the voter fraud in NM elections.” One of Trujillo’s accounts shared tweets saying that Jews had an unusual degree of influence in COVID vaccine developments. (She has said that she didn’t recall sending the tweets.)
In New Mexico, Hispanic Republicans tend to run better statewide than Anglo Republicans do, and the gubernatorial race is shaping up to be more vulnerable for the Democratic incumbent, Michelle Lujan Grisham, than was expected a few months ago. It remains to be seen whether a Republican updraft from the gubernatorial race could help Trujillo win.
Michigan: Jocelyn Benson (D)
Benson was elected in 2018 after serving as dean of Wayne State University Law School.
Karamo, a Trump-endorsed activist who has not served in elected office, is waiting to be officially anointed as the GOP nominee following her selection at a party convention over more establishment competition. Karamo has called Benson “evil” and alleged widespread voting fraud in the state, according to Vice.
Compared to some of the states above, Democrats are breathing a bit easier in Michigan these days, with incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer notching relatively strong approval numbers and abortion seeming to have an energizing effect on Democrats and independents, as seen in the likely placement of a pro-abortion rights ballot measure in November.
Minnesota: Steve Simon (D)
Simon is in his second term and is running for a third. He defeated conservative activist Steve Carlson in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary.
On the GOP side, conservative attorney Kim Crockett, who was endorsed at the state party convention, won the nomination by a wide margin. She has sent out a fundraising email calling the election “rigged,” appeared at a showing of Dinesh D’Souza’s election-fraud documentary 2,000 Mules, and advocates cutting back early voting.
Indiana: Open seat (Holli Sullivan, R, was defeated for renomination)
Diego Morales, a businessman and former aide to then-Gov. Mike Pence, won the Republican nomination as an insurgent over Sullivan, the establishment choice, at the state party convention.
Morales ran unsuccessfully in the 4th Congressional District primary in 2018; as a campaigner, he’s described as tenacious, but so much so that he’s made some enemies within the party along the way. Morales has called the 2020 election a “scam” and echoed other election-related claims by Trump and his allies. He has also advocated cutting early voting days.
The Democratic nominee is attorney and veteran Destiny Wells, who is little-known but will have the nearly full attention of the state Democratic Party, which has no other potentially competitive statewide races to focus on.
As a Republican in solidly red Indiana, Morales would seem to start the race as the favorite. However, he could be weighed down by his own baggage and by the possibility that pro-abortion rights suburban women are energized by opposition to Indiana’s new abortion law. A poll by Indy Politics found Wells leading Morales, 31%-28%, though 34% were undecided.
Competitive races where a more establishment Republican is facing a Democrat
The distinctive feature of races in this category is that the Republican nominee is a traditional Republican and not known for election denialism. While some of the GOP nominees’ policies on election administration will offer contrasts with their Democratic opponents, these races are shaping up more like generic Republican-Democratic battles, rather than ones that play out on a more Trumpified playing field.
Each of these 4 races look competitive for now, but the incumbent party has an edge in each of them to start — the GOP in Georgia and Iowa, and the Democrats in Colorado and Wisconsin.
Georgia: Brad Raffensperger (R)
Raffensperger infuriated Trump by rejecting his request to “find” enough votes to make Trump the winner over Joe Biden in Georgia, and by forcefully opposing the outgoing president’s allegations of election fraud in the state. Such positions led to death threats against Raffensperger and his family.
Despite this, Raffensperger dispatched Rep. Jody Hice (R, GA-10), among others, in the primary — a major rebuke to the Trump wing of the party.
The Democratic nominee is progressive state Rep. Bee Nguyen. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found Raffensperger leading Nguyen 46%-32%, with 15% undecided. The poll found that Raffensperger had lost a chunk of pro-Trump Republicans but that he was making up for it with stronger-than-average performances with independent voters and Democrats.
Colorado: Jena Griswold (D)
Griswold, who was first elected in 2018, is running for another term.
Like voters in Georgia, GOP primary voters in Colorado nominated an establishment candidate over one aligned with Trump. The nominee is former Jefferson County clerk Pam Anderson, who has cast doubt on election-fraud claims made by the Trump camp. She defeated Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, who had been indicted for election tampering and misconduct and who had proposed ending Colorado’s all-mail election system.
In this blue-leaning state, Griswold starts as the favorite, but the GOP has a much better shot at winning the secretary of state race with Anderson than it would have with Peters.
Iowa: Paul Pate (R)
Pate served a term as secretary of state from 1995 to 1999 and 2 more beginning in 2014.
He will face Joel Miller, the auditor in Linn County, which includes Cedar Rapids. At times, Miller has clashed with his fellow Democrats, but more recently, he was among the Iowa county auditors who were successfully sued by the Trump campaign for sending out absentee ballot request forms that included voters’ ID numbers. He also spoke out publicly against a 2021 elections bill in Iowa that Democrats have criticized as unnecessary and suppressive.
The Democrats have been at a disadvantage in Iowa in recent election cycles, so this will be an uphill race for Miller, especially without being able to face a GOP election denier.
Wisconsin: Doug La Follette (D)
Unlike most other states, Wisconsin does not give its secretary of state authority over elections. Still, Republicans have targeted the seat held by 82-year-old La Follette, a distant relative of former Wisconsin governor and senator Bob La Follette. La Follette has served as Wisconsin’s secretary of state for all but 4 years since 1975.
On Tuesday, La Follette won a contested Democratic primary against Dane County Democratic Chair Alexia Sabor.
In the GOP primary, state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, the most establishment-oriented candidate of the field, defeated conservative activist Justin Schmidtka and former Menasha town supervisor Jay Schroeder.
While Wisconsin’s secretary of state does not currently have power over elections, it appears possible that if the GOP wins the office along with the governorship this year (and holds the state legislature), they would transfer election-administration authority away from a state commission to the office, a move that Loudenbeck supports and that likely will be a focus of the general election campaign.
Republican-held seats that do not appear to be competitive in the general election
Each of these contests lean solidly Republican, though it’s worth keeping an eye on whether Kansas and Ohio become competitive later in the campaign.
Alabama: Open seat (John Merrill, R, is term-limited)
In this solidly red state, Republican state Rep. Wes Allen is the overwhelming favorite against Democrat Pamela Laffitte, an Air Force veteran and senior corrections officer.
Arkansas: John Thurston (R)
Thurston, the establishment Republican candidate, won renomination after surviving a primary challenge by Eddie Joe Williams, the former state Senate majority leader and a former Trump administration energy official. He will face Anna Beth Gorman, head of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. Gorman will be a distinct underdog in this solidly red state.
Idaho: Open seat (Lawerence Denney, R, is retiring)
Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, the establishment candidate, narrowly held off Trump-aligned state Rep. Dorothy Moon in the GOP primary. In November, McGrane will be the favorite to defeat Democratic activist Shawn Keenan.
Kansas: Scott Schwab (R)
Schwab begins the general election as the favorite to win another term. He will be running against Democrat Jeanna Repass, a former church outreach director and businesswoman.
While Schwab has been relatively uncontroversial in office, we’ll be watching to see if a pro-Democratic boomlet emerges in the general election like it did in the Aug. 2 primary, when unexpectedly high turnout helped torpedo an anti-abortion ballot measure. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly gives the top of the Democratic ticket some ballast, something that’s not always the case in Kansas, and the Republicans’ decision to nominate controversial former Secretary of State Kris Kobach for attorney general could spark some voter backlash against the GOP ticket.
Nebraska: Bob Evnen (R)
Evnen is essentially assured reelection, as no Democrat made the general election ballot.
North Dakota: Open seat (Al Jaeger, R, is retiring)
The GOP has nominated state Rep. and farmer Michael Howe, who is the heavy favorite in this solidly Republican state to defeat the Democratic nominee, university administrator Jeffrey Powell.
Ohio: Frank LaRose (R)
LaRose, the establishment candidate, defeated former state legislator John Adams, who expressed doubts that Biden won the election. He’ll face Chelsea Clark, a city council member in suburban Cincinnati’s Forest Park.
Ohio has become an increasingly difficult target for Democrats in recent years, but a surprisingly strong race by Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan — combined with a potential backlash against abortion restrictions — could make this contest more interesting as Election Day approaches.
South Carolina: Mark Hammond (R)
Hammond will face Democratic nominee Peggy Butler, a former West Columbia city council member and veteran. In this solidly red state, Hammond is the heavy favorite.
South Dakota: Open seat (Steve Barnett, R, was defeated for renomination)
Barnett was defeated for renomination at the state GOP convention, losing to an insurgent candidate, Monae Johnson. The Democrats nominated Tom Cool, a nonprofit executive. The state’s solidly red lean makes Johnson the favorite in the race.
Wyoming: Open seat (Ed Buchanan, R, is retiring)
The primary on Aug. 16 will include 3 Republican candidates: businessman R. Mark Armstrong, state Rep. Chuck Gray, and state Sen. Tara Nethercott. Whoever wins the primary will cruise to victory; no Democrat is seeking the office.
Democratic-held seats that do not appear to be competitive in the general election
Each of these contests lean solidly Democratic, although some interesting primaries remain to be decided.
California: Shirley Weber (D)
Weber, who was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Alex Padilla was appointed to the Senate, is running for election and is the prohibitive favorite in solidly blue California.
Weber will face Republican tech executive Rob Bernosky, who fared better in the all-party primary than did Trump-aligned Republican Rachel Hamm. Weber won 59%, easily outpacing Bernosky, with 19%. Hamm won 12%.
Connecticut: Open seat (Denise Merrill, D, recently resigned, and appointee Mark Kohler is filling out the rest of her term)
In the Aug. 9 Democratic primary, state Rep. Stephanie Thomas defeated New Haven City Health Director Maritza Bond for this open seat.
On the GOP side, 2018 Senate candidate Dominic Rapini defeated state Rep. Terrie Wood.
In this solidly blue state, Thomas is the clear favorite in the general.
Illinois: Open seat (Jesse White, D, is retiring)
Like the secretary of state’s office in Wisconsin, the one in Illinois plays no role in administering elections; that duty was handed to an appointed State Board of Elections under the 1970 Illinois Constitution. These days, the primary duties of the office are maintaining official state records and overseeing automobile services.
On the Democratic side, former state treasurer and unsuccessful Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias won the nomination. He will face downstate Republican state Rep. Dan Brady. But in heavily blue — and heavily Chicago-oriented — Illinois, the Republican nominee will be a significant underdog.
Massachusetts: Bill Galvin (D)
Massachusetts has a late primary, on Sept. 6. Galvin, who has served 7 terms, faces a credible fight for renomination against Tanisha Sullivan, an attorney who is president of the Boston NAACP and who was previously a corporate counsel for Sanofi Genzyme. In a knock to the longtime incumbent, Sullivan received the state party’s endorsement in June.
The expected GOP nominee is Rayla Campbell, a Trump campaign activist. Whoever wins the Democratic primary will be a shoo-in this November in solidly blue Massachusetts.
Rhode Island: Open seat (Nellie Gorbea, D, is running for governor)
The heavy favorite to win the Sept. 13 Democratic primary is Gregg Amore, a public school teacher who is serving his fifth term in the General Assembly. He has received key endorsements and put up solid fundraising numbers; he’s also well-liked by the Democratic political establishment.
In solidly blue Rhode Island, the Democratic nominee should face only token opposition in November.
Vermont: Open seat (Jim Condos, D, is retiring)
In Vermont’s Aug. 9 Democratic primary, state Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas narrowly defeated deputy secretary of state Chris Winters for the nomination, with Montpelier City Clerk John Odum well behind. The Democratic nominee will be favored in November, but the toughest challenge could come from the left: Former Winooski City Councilor Robert Millar will be running on the Progressive Party line.
Washington state: Steve Hobbs (D)
Hobbs was sworn in in late November after being tapped by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to succeed Kim Wyman, a Republican who took a position with the Biden administration. (This is a special election; the office is usually elected in presidential years.)
In the Aug. 2 all-party primary, Hobbs has won about 40% of the vote (which is still being counted). The GOP will be locked out of the top 2 slots, with Independent Julie Anderson, the Pierce County auditor and former Tacoma city council member, edging out Republican state Sen. Keith Wagoner.
Hobbs is the first Democrat to hold the office in 56 years, but the state has a blue lean, suggesting that he’s the candidate to beat in November.
Bonus category: Gubernatorial races that could determine the appointment of the secretary of state
Several states will hold gubernatorial races in which the winner will be able to appoint the secretary of state.
Two big prizes, Florida and Texas, lean towards GOP holds, while one smaller prize, Maryland, is almost certain to flip to the Democrats.
In addition, a few states have their legislature choose the secretary of state, and among those are Maine and New Hampshire, which could see a competitive fight for control in one or both chambers. (Currently, Democrats control both chambers in Maine, while Republicans control both in New Hampshire.)
But the biggest prize for a secretary of state appointment, however, would be Pennsylvania. The Keystone State is a highly-competitive Trump-to-Biden state where Trump and his allies sought to overturn the election results. Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro will be facing off against Mastriano, a Republican state senator who fully qualifies as a Trump-aligned election denier.
Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the Almanac of American Politics 2022. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.
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This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.
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