Oct 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Down-ballot alarms drive national attention to local races

Illustration of a "vote" pin as a boxing ring bell

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is getting involved in secretary of state races for the first time in the group's history, worried about politicization and the integrity of future results if election-deniers are elected in key states.

Driving the news: The group is spending $1 million on digital campaigning, social media ads and direct mail to educate voters about where candidates stand on election administration and voting rights in Arizona, Minnesota and Nevada, said senior campaign strategist Zara Haq.

  • "It's important to make sure the chief election officer is running elections in a nonpartisan way and that they're committing to certifying results," Haq said.
  • Last week, the ACLU and its affiliate chapter in North Carolina announced a $1.1 million campaign focused on educating voters about state Supreme Court races and their role in determining abortion access.
  • Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said election disinformation "leads [voters] to policy disagreements, which of course are OK — but it also leads them to supporting candidates who put their stock in conspiracy theories."

The big picture: The intervention by the ACLU comes amid a wave of massive last-minute spending on down-ballot races by Democrats concerned that GOP wins could erode election integrity in 2024 — as well as abortion rights.

What we're watching: Forward Majority, a major outside group working to build Democratic power in the states, is now pouring $20 million into 25 races across both state chambers in Pennsylvania and Michigan, as well as the Arizona House, which Democrats haven't controlled since the 1960s.

  • And in a new memo sent to stakeholders, obtained by Axios, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) writes: "State legislatures need to be a key strategic priority of the Democratic Party — not an afterthought."
  • "We cannot continue to neglect these races, and our democracy cannot stand if we do not make sustained investments now and for years to come."
  • The DLCC has managed to raise over $47 million so far this cycle but has received no funding directly from the Democratic National Committee.

Between the lines: Most of the DLCC's focus is on protecting Democrats' state legislative majorities in Colorado, Maine and Nevada, as well as in the Minnesota and New Mexico state houses.

  • That leaves outside groups to fill in the gaps and focus on flipping vulnerable GOP chambers and other down-ballot seats determined by thin margins.

The backdrop: This all comes after another massive initiative from two outside Democratic groups focusing on a separate coalition of state legislative races in Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

What they're saying: "These races are the hardest on the ballot. This is not Congress, changing hands multiple times over the course of a decade," said Forward Majority co-founder and co-CEO Vicky Hausman. "Money is essential, but it is not enough. We need to relentlessly innovate and disrupt business as usual."

  • Nevada’s Democratic nominee for secretary of state, Cisco Aguilar, told Axios that people are "scared out of their minds" about what could happen there, but they're also preoccupied with so-called kitchen table issues.
  • "It's not about educating folks. It's about motivating them to get to the polls and giving them a reason to exercise that fundamental right," Aguilar said. "When you can relate access to the ballot box to those issues, then they are motivated."
Go deeper