Secretary of state races are normally dull affairs. Frequently buoyed to victory by whichever party wins at the top of the ticket, candidates for the posts that oversee the administration of elections traditionally haven’t been household names.
That all changed after 2020. Once Donald Trump began questioning the integrity of the presidential election — and then turned his fire on individual states’ electoral processes after he lost — it became clear that electoral administration was crucial to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.
“The 2020 election cycle really set at the center secretaries of state as the defenders of democracy,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold told me. “And voters were paying attention.”
Then came 2022. As record numbers of election deniers and conspiracy theorists began to run for key posts around the country this year, the urgency of electing sane, normal candidates was now existential. Threats to democracy began to take center stage in polling, in Congress’s investigation into the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, and in President Joe Biden’s pitch to voters ahead of the midterm elections.
But Griswold — and the small team at the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, which she chairs — were already developing a strategy to fight back, one they’d amplify through strong fundraising, and by outspending right-wing opponents. They believed voter education, as well as plain and convincing messages that cast election-denying candidates as the extremists they were, would make it easier for moderate and independent voters to vote for Democrats, even if they didn’t vote Democratic up and down the ballot.
And they were right. DASS-backed candidates won every election in which they competed this year, including in key battleground states like Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, and Minnesota. Those wins happened as voters rejected all but one of the candidates aligned with the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a conspiracy theory-minded conservative group trying to win posts that would enable them to oversee elections in 2024.
Much of this stunning collapse of election deniers nationwide can be attributed to the work of Griswold, DASS, and the Democratic candidates. But, ultimately, the defeat of election deniers this year was up to the voters who turned out, and who surprised much of the political world with nuanced choices in these battleground states.
How candidate messaging helped lay out clear stakes
With a sour national mood and persistently high inflation, Democratic candidates in secretary of state races faced a challenge that other statewide candidates didn’t have. While gubernatorial and Senate hopefuls could talk about those kitchen-table issues and present their own plans to address them, secretaries of state have no power over taxes, crime, and immigration, limiting the platform they could run on.
National headwinds added an additional layer of danger: Candidates had to overcome any negative associations the electorate might have with Democrats in a midterm year that was supposed to punish incumbents and the party in power. These candidates also had to define themselves clearly against their opponents while other statewide candidates were already swamping the airwaves with their own messages about democracy and voting rights, and in many cases, explain what the office even did to less engaged voters.
“The one core message across all of the races was partly just explaining what a secretary of state is, the role of a secretary of state in elections, and raising awareness about this position in general,” Kim Rogers, the executive director of DASS, told me. Once voters had a better understanding of why the office mattered, the answer seemed simple to them.
Democratic candidates also found ways to connect the office to the greater frustration voters had with the status quo, like with inflation and the economy. Cisco Aguilar, the Democratic secretary of state-elect for the office in Nevada, told me that while he often spent time “literally being a civics teacher,” it was necessary to have those in-the-weeds conversations.
“Once you educate them, you can say, ‘I understand your top issues are the education of your kids, your job, your small business, the safety of your community, and this is how the secretary of state’s office is responsible for making sure you have a voice in these issues.’”
Aguilar also said he spent much of the 18-month campaign casting himself as the candidate of steadiness, and his opponent, Jim Marchant, the leader of the election denier coalition, as the candidate of chaos. He explained to voters how Nevada, and its elections, would have an impact on who the next president might be in 2024, and that an election conspiracist in charge of that process could lead to not just their disenfranchisement, but worsening conditions in their state and the nation.
“All communities, strong communities, are built by having people’s say, by making sure you have the greatest participation of the members of that community, and making sure people understood that their voices need to be heard,” he said. “Chaos is not good for any community. Chaos leads to turmoil. And when you have turmoil, it impacts the economy. It impacts people’s jobs. It impacts the education of kids.”
Adrian Fontes, the Democratic secretary of state-elect in Arizona, set out the stakes of his election in similar terms to voters. Facing the outspoken election denier and conspiracist Mark Finchem, Fontes went further in defining just how extreme his opponent was. During a DASS news conference earlier this week, Fontes described Finchem as being something worse than an election denier.
“We need to stop calling them election deniers, and start calling them authoritarians,” he said. “There’s a word in Spanish called negacionistas, which I think really describes them very, very well. These are people who negate the reality that exists out there. These are folks who do not believe in democracy, they do not believe in the American voter, and the power of the consent of the governed.”
I asked Fontes a bit more about why he uses this term, and how it helped him reach critical Latino voters, when we chatted earlier this week.
“My authentic self does not suffer bullshit very kindly,” he told me. “You’ve got to be truthful, you’ve got to be direct, and you’ve got to be honest; you owe it to the people to whom you are talking to be clear, and being clear sometimes means that you might bend somebody’s feelings a little bit.”
By using the term election denier, Fontes felt that he was not “doing justice to our side of the fight,” because “by calling someone who is an authoritarian an election denier, that seems like a very politically correct way to get around conflict, to get around a direct attack against the anti-American sentiment.”
That imperative also led him to fine-tune his campaign pitch to Latino and Hispanic voters in Arizona, who make up 25 percent of the state’s electorate, by recognizing that a patriotic message aimed at English speakers wouldn’t translate easily to a cohort of citizens who have different shared experiences from Latin America.
In television and social media ads, he talked in Spanish in a collective sense about Arizonans knowing the importance of having a “voice and vote” because “we know just how easy it is to lose it” — “sabemos que tan facil es perderlo.”
“Hispanic Americans have a collective memory, and [that] includes the political tumult that Latin American nations have experienced over the last several decades, and over the last several generations. We know what it is to lose democracy, because we can identify with Venezuela, we can identify with Central American countries,” Fontes said.
Bringing all of these various messages to voters were the tens of millions of dollars the candidates, and groups like End Citizens United, iVote, and a DASS-affiliated PAC spent on television ads and face-to-face campaigning. DASS itself went from raising $4.5 million in all of 2021 (already $2 million more than what it had available in 2020) to over $25 million in the 2022 cycle. By October, Democratic secretary of state candidates and aligned outside groups were outspending Republicans 57 to 1 in TV ads; in third-quarter fundraising, the New York Times reported, Marchant in Nevada had raised $89,000, when Aguilar had raised $1.1 million.
All this messaging worked — in Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Michigan, Democratic secretary of state candidates ran even with other statewide candidates, or overperformed. They won many races by larger margins than other Democrats in down-ballot contests. And most surprising — early exit polling in Arizona and Nevada, and across the country, showed that they were able to garner support from a large share of Republicans and independents.
Independents sealed Democratic victories
That crossover support was crucial to victory.
Both Arizona and Nevada are states where nonpartisan, independent voters make up just as large a share of voters, if not larger, than Republicans and Democrats alone. Victory in a statewide contest requires Democrats to not just hold their base, but win independent voters and some Republican support. Because economic concerns were top of mind for most of these voters, many politicians, strategists, pundits, and journalists questioned in the final days of the campaign whether a closing message focused on democracy and the “extreme” agenda of Republican candidates in swing states would resonate.
Exit polls, and surveys of voters, suggest that it did — especially in down-ballot races like secretary of state contests. In a new report on focus groups conducted in the weeks before the election, the progressive group Navigator Research found that among Democrats and independents, fear of Republican threats to democracy was a strong motivator: participants in their focus groups said they were voting “to stop Republicans” and feared Republicans “being batshit crazy.”
Aguilar told me he knew that these underlying fears of Republican positions might be especially helpful in Nevada, where his opponent was advocating against the very popular early voting period and mail-in voting options that most Nevadans use to vote. He won by a bigger margin than either Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic senator who won reelection, or Joe Lombardo, the Republican challenger who won the governor’s race — and won Washoe County, the state’s more educated, more independent, and more purple swing district, by a wider margin than both Cortez Masto and Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, who lost reelection.
Fontes had similar results in Arizona, winning more votes than either Democratic candidate for governor or Senate in the state’s biggest swing county, Maricopa. Meanwhile Griswold, in Colorado, wasn’t running against an election denier, but still won by more this year than when she ran for her first term in 2018, a “blue wave” year.
“The big headline from Colorado is voters were very concerned about democracy. They showed up. They rejected extremism, both in the primary and in the general. And we saw overwhelming support that we really have not seen,” she said.
Now these candidates have to show those independents and Republicans they won this time that they will live up to their word. They’ll have their chance come 2024; for candidates like Griswold, that will simply mean continuing to run elections as they always have.