Republicans who’ve pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump are hauling in massive amounts of money to fuel secretary of state campaigns this year, with candidates in key swing states on pace to raise record sums for contests that have taken on new significance thanks to the GOP’s efforts to exert all-out partisan control over the country’s election systems.
Democrats, who have cast their own efforts to defend incumbent secretaries of state in major battlegrounds as key to protecting American democracy, will also likely shatter fundraising records as donors shower candidates with the sort of early cash usually reserved for glitzier campaigns for Congress, U.S. Senate and governor.
Secretary of state candidates in three battleground states — Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota — have collectively raised 2.5 times more than candidates had at a comparable point in 2014 or 2018 election cycles, according to a new analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit that will track campaign spending in secretary of state races and other contests that will shape how elections are managed and run.
The astronomical sums reflect the increased profiles of secretaries of state who found themselves in the spotlight during the 2020 election — and the subject of relentless attacks in its wake — as well as the heightened stakes of such campaigns even in a crowded midterm cycle.
“Brad Raffensperger is a household name. Jocelyn Benson is a household name,” said Ian Vandewalker, a senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and one of the report’s authors. “It was not long ago that no one had ever heard of a single secretary of state.”
Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, leads all candidates in those three states with $1.2 million raised, a striking sum driven by her prominent role defending her state’s election system from baseless claims of fraud in the wake of the 2020 election. Raffensperger, the Georgia Republican who thwarted Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in his state, has raised nearly $400,000, roughly four times more than he had at this point in 2018.
But the election conspiracies Benson’s presumptive opponent and other Republicans have pushed for the last two years have also proven lucrative in Michigan and other states the Brennan Center analyzed.
In Georgia, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice raised nearly $576,000 over the first three months of his campaign for secretary of state, outpacing Raffensperger and all other candidates in the race. Michigan GOP candidate Kristina Karamo raised $164,000 last year — a sum that leaves her well behind Benson but still exceeds the total raised by Benson’s Republican challenger at this point in 2018.
Both Hice and Karamo spread conspiracies about the results of the 2020 election and challenges to the outcome of the race, which Trump lost to President Joe Biden.
Hice, who is widely considered the front-runner in Georgia’s GOP primary, twice voted to challenge election results in Congress and launched his campaign by accusing Raffensperger of “compromising” Georgia’s election by refusing Trump’s pleas to “find” the votes necessary to overturn it. Karamo baselessly asserted that voting machines switched votes to Biden, backed baseless legal claims that the election was fraudulent, and called for an Arizona-style “forensic audit” of the 2020 results in Michigan.
Hice and Karamo are among a group of at least 15 Republican election skeptics seeking secretary of state positions that would, in most cases, make them the top elections official in their states. Both have received endorsements from Trump, who also backed Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, a Republican who was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection and is now running for secretary of state.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which focuses on state legislative and other down-ballot races, has already raised at least $2 million more than it did during the 2020 election cycle.
Fear that the GOP might use secretary of state positions to more aggressively suppress votes — or to influence and potentially overturn future elections in ways secretaries like Benson, Raffensperger and Arizona’s Katie Hobbs (D) prevented in 2020 — has also driven a fundraising boom on the Democratic side.
Benson’s early total is six times what the leading candidate had raised at this point in the 2014 election cycle, according to Brennan’s analysis. Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the presumptive front-runner in the Democratic secretary of state primary, raised $387,000 in the first half of 2021, four times more than Raffensperger had raised at this point in the previous election.
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a party campaign arm, brought in more than $1 million during the first half of 2021, roughly double what it raised during the entirety of the 2018 cycle. And it expects to raise as much as five to 10 times its total haul from four years ago, executive director Kim Rogers told HuffPost in November.
Vandewalker argued that election reforms like those included in the Freedom to Vote Act, major legislation Democrats are currently trying to pass through the Senate, would help reduce the partisan stakes of secretary of state races. But without such legislation, it’s virtually certain that spending on these races will continue to skyrocket. And it’s likely that super PACs and other outside groups will soon begin to start pouring cash into the contests too, Vandewalker said.
“There’s every reason to think that there will be big outside spending both from super PACs and dark money groups, just as a function of increased attention and increased nationalization,” he said. “There’s deep-pocketed people who are keyed into this issue ... and it’s entirely possible that they are going to push more money into these elections through outside spending.”