The Midterm Races That Give Democrats Nightmares


Professional Democrats have many fears about the 2022 midterm elections that keep them up at night.

Chief among them: losing Congress and handing over investigative powers and the ability to set the Washington agenda to Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. Granting Republicans full control over states where abortion remains contested. Seeing President Biden turned prematurely into a lame duck.

Somewhere near the top of that list is the concern that voters will elect Donald Trump’s preferred candidates to the office of secretary of state, a job that in many states plays a critical role in safeguarding the right to vote, while also ensuring the smooth operation and fairness of the electoral system.

To put it plainly, the widespread worry on the left is that Trump’s loyalists will guarantee his re-election in 2024 if they take power in 2022. It’s not something either Trump or these candidates labor especially hard to rebut.

Secretary of state is not a glamorous gig, generally speaking; it’s primarily an administrative job, and tends to attract little attention from the public and press. That changed significantly in battleground states after the Trump-fueled election chaos in 2020, and now money and attention are pouring into secretary of state races — not least because the former president has made it his mission to elect Republican candidates who back his conspiracy theories.

It’s easy to tell what Trump wants: total fealty. It’s often far harder to figure out what voters want.

Enter a new poll of five swing states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada — that was shared with The New York Times in advance of its publication. The survey, which polled 1,400 people who are likely to vote in November, was conducted by David Binder Research on behalf of iVote, a group that backs Democrats in secretary of state races.

Interpreting the findings, which focus not on candidates but on voters’ views about what they think is important in a secretary of state, is a tricky business.

The poll found that 82 percent of likely voters rated “accurately tabulating votes in elections and certifying results” as an extremely important responsibility. Additionally, 67 percent said they would be much more likely to support a candidate “who will prioritize options for all voters and making sure every vote is counted.”

But as is often the case with voters, they are giving us conflicting signals. Fifty-nine percent said they would be much more likely to support a candidate “who says the top priority is to ensure fair elections and make sure that only eligible voters are casting ballots.” That sounds a lot more like what many Republican candidates are saying.

In one indication of just how much traction Trump’s claims still hold over the G.O.P. base, 72 percent of voters who picked Trump in 2020 said the election had been stolen from him. That’s about a third of all voters.

And when the survey is broken down between those who said that Biden won fairly and those who espoused the false view that the election was stolen from Trump, a remarkable symmetry emerges: Supermajorities on both sides express concern that “elected officials will attempt to overturn the will of the people,” for instance, but of course each group is worried about the other team subverting the true results — and each group differs on what those are.

Ellen Kurz, the founder and president of iVote, has been focused on secretary of state races for nearly a decade, she said in an interview. In 2018, the group spent $7 million helping elect Democrats in Arizona and Michigan who later became important players in the 2020 election.

This year, iVote has a budget of more than twice that amount — $15 million, which it plans to spend on broadcast, cable and digital advertising to bolster its candidates.

Kurz argued that Republicans had been trying to suppress the votes of people of color and other key Democratic blocs since well before Trump took the national stage — but that his obsession with election fraud and claims of a stolen election have turbocharged those efforts.

“I believed it was really bad before, but this is a different level,” she said. “It’s at a next level of danger.”

Republicans are also hyperfocused on secretary of state races, led by a group of Trump allies called the America First Secretary of State Coalition along with official groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Let’s break down each of the swing states polled:

These primaries haven’t happened yet, and Democrats and democracy advocates say they are especially crucial.

On the Republican side, the Trump-backed candidate is Mark Finchem, a state lawmaker who has gone all-in on the former president’s conspiracy theories about 2020.

Finchem is but one of four contenders, a group that also includes Shawnna Bolick, another state lawmaker who also supported throwing out the election results in favor of Trump; Beau Lane, an advertising executive backed by the business community; and Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a state lawmaker who has promoted a number of restrictive voting laws in the Arizona Senate.

The incumbent secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, is running for governor. That has left a vacuum on the Democratic side, with Adrian Fontes, the former recorder of Maricopa County, the state’s largest county, competing for the job against Reginald Bolding, the minority leader of the State House and a voting-rights activist.

For all the national attention these primaries have gotten, they have yet to generate much enthusiasm among actual voters in Arizona. For example, a debate between Fontes and Bolding in May drew an audience of just 70 people, according to The Tucson Sentinel.

Democrats nominated Bee Nguyen, a progressive nonprofit executive and state lawmaker, to vie for secretary of state, an office that proved critical in 2020 when Trump tried to pressure Georgia officials to overturn the results in his favor.

But during this year’s Republican primary, pro-democracy groups spent heavily to help Brad Raffensperger, the incumbent secretary who defied Trump’s demands. In May, Raffensperger easily dispatched Trump’s chosen candidate, Representative Jody Hice.

One factor in that race was a surge of outside spending. Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican operative who helped marshal resources to defend Raffensperger, said she noticed that, when voters in focus groups were asked about Hice, they kept saying they had never heard of “her.”

Hice is a man. His lack of name recognition struck Longwell as an opportunity, so Unite America and other groups she was working with poured money into the race in its final 10 days.

“Right at the end, you could see that there was a wide opening for Raffensperger to scoot through,” she said.

Karamo has made inflammatory comments on her personal podcast, such as calling yoga a “satanic ritual” that was originally intended by its creators to “summon a demon.” She’s all but certain to be the G.O.P.’s official nominee in August, Michigan Republicans say.

Democrats are backing Jocelyn Benson, the incumbent secretary of state who oversaw the 2020 elections. Benson has become a top villain for Republicans, who falsely accuse her of rigging the results in Biden’s favor in Michigan, which he narrowly won.

Benson has drawn particular fire for sending a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the state, a decision that a Michigan appeals court later ruled was lawful.

The leading Republican candidate is Kim Crockett, who called the 2020 election “rigged” in a campaign email. At the Minnesota Republican convention, where Crockett won the state G.O.P.’s endorsement, she played a video that depicted George Soros, the liberal financier, above the caption, “Let’s wreck elections forever and ever.”

Crockett also has shown support for “2000 Mules,” a documentary by Dinesh D’Souza that promotes various conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

On the Democratic side, Steve Simon, the incumbent secretary of state, is running for re-election. He has a huge fund-raising edge over Crockett, with more than $500,000 on hand as of May, while she reported having just $56,000 in her campaign account.

Jim Marchant, who organized the America First Secretary of State Coalition, handily won the Republican primary. Marchant has said that a “cabal” of people around the world are manipulating voting machines, a conspiracy theory that has been repeatedly debunked and is the subject of a defamation suit against several Trump allies. As for Marchant’s claim that his own failed bid for Congress was stolen in 2020, he told The Guardian that “a lot of judges were bought off too.”

Marchant’s Democratic opponent is Cisco Aguilar, who ran uncontested. Aguilar, a lawyer and former state athletic commissioner, has the backing of most prominent Democrats in the state, as well as Andre Agassi, the retired tennis star.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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