Aug 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Secretary of state races intensify

Illustration of a hand in a suit holding a tiny voting booth
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tuesday's GOP primary in Wisconsin illustrates why Democrats are intensifying their focus on secretary of state contests — and arguments that they are the guardians against 2024 presidential election results being overturned.

Driving the news: All three Republicans seeking the nomination in the Badger State have endorsed changing state election laws based on their belief the 2020 process was somehow flawed. They've proposed eliminating a bipartisan elections commission (established by Republicans in 2016) and giving that power to the secretary of state.

  • Minnesota, Connecticut and Vermont also are hosting primaries Tuesday.

Why it matters: These once-overlooked races are being flooded with more money and attention as both major parties see the stakes for 2024.

The big picture: There are 27 secretaries of state contests on U.S. ballots this year — for 13 offices held by Democrats, 13 held by Republicans and one — in North Dakota — held by an independent.

  • The other battleground state contests include Nevada, New Mexico, Michigan, Georgia, Colorado and Arizona.

Zoom in: In Wisconsin, Doug La Follette, the Democratic incumbent seeking re-election, was first elected to the post in 1974 and has held it for most of the nearly half-century since.

  • He told Axios that around the country, "the secretary of state's office is coming into focus as the newest battleground to save democracy."

The other side: Axios reached out to the GOP candidates seeking to replace La Follette.

Only one of their campaigns, that of state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, responded, saying: "Amy Loudenbeck has never stated the 2020 election was rigged."

  • The statement goes on to say that "mistakes and misleading guidance given county clerks by the Wisconsin Elections Commission in 2020 need to be corrected so they can not happen again," that the commission "needs to be abolished," and that "Amy will advocate to the legislature a new model of overseeing and administering elections that would include the Secretary of State’s office as it once did and as more than half the other states currently do."
  • Loudenbeck lists "election confidence" as the first issue on her campaign website. She is encouraging state lawmakers to consider "a wide range of policy options" to give the secretary of state power "to ensure election integrity and transparency and help restore elections confidence."
  • GOP rival Justin Schmidtka — a truck driver and podcast host — on his website pledged to "immediately" dismantle the Wisconsin Elections Commission if elected. He's also urging the state attorney general to consider criminal charges against the members of that commission based on unfounded claims of fraud.
  • A third, Jay Schroeder, former town supervisor of Menasha, Wisconsin, accuses Democrats of "lying" and "cheating" on his campaign website bio. "The next problem I will solve is the security of our elections," Schroeder wrote.

What they're saying: Kim Rogers, executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told Axios that if Republicans prevail in certain states, it will spell "chaos" for 2024.

  • “We can’t afford to lose Secretary of State races because extreme Republicans would oversee future elections. They’re already telling us what they’re going to do — and they have the potential to not certify elections, to drag out results, and to ultimately create a constitutional crisis."

Minnesota's Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat, said on-the-job threats have intensified since he took office, changing the nature of the job but also underscoring the need for people who will resist political pressure: "It's a very important time to be in the democracy business right now, but it's just a different deal."

New Mexico's Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, says a big part of her campaign has been to ensure voters "have a good grasp on the truth before 2024, and in a perfect world before November."

Nevada's Democratic nominee Cisco Aguilar said what happens in November "is going to have an impact for decades on Nevada."

  • His Republican challenger, former state assemblyman Jim Marchant, previously said that if he were secretary of state in 2020 he would not have certified Biden's victory in Nevada.

Be smart: To be sure, not every Republican running for secretary of state around the U.S. advocated overturning Joe Biden's win in 2020 or is calling for empowering the office they're seeking to override popular or electoral votes.

  • Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who resisted former President Trump's pressure to overturn Biden's win in his state, survived a primary challenge earlier this year.
  • Such candidates must first prevail in GOP primaries against Trump loyalists, and then convince general election voters they'll put country above party.
Go deeper