Donald Trump was approaching the height of his political power at this time four years ago. He was nearly a year into office and had already put a nominee on the US Supreme Court, and a Republican Congress was about to pass a significant tax cut that would be the biggest legislative accomplishment of his presidency.
Around then, Trump was also aggressively trying to remake the Republican Party in his image by doling out all kinds of endorsements in ways that sitting presidents rarely did. But Trump wanted his people in positions that he felt were important.
What Trump didn’t do, however, is bother to endorse a single candidate for secretary of state. It wasn’t an oversight. For most of American history, few have paid attention to the contests.
But that has changed.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, secretaries of state, who generally administer the elections in their individual states, have suddenly become extremely important. Some 47 states have a secretary of state position. The specific duties in each state vary widely as does how each is elected. (Most are elected statewide, but in Maine and New Hampshire the position is elected by the legislature. In other states, it is appointed by the governor.) But basically, all are in charge of the day-to-day functions of how elections are administered and results counted, at least on the statewide level.
To illustrate how the decisions of a secretary of state can matter nationally, just consider who Trump called when he was trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which he lost.
He didn’t call a US Senator for help or the governor, but he fully pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to recount the votes in his state that Biden won and told him, “I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.”
And since then, Trump and just about everyone else is very interested in the 27 races for secretary of state on the ballot in 2022. The winners of those races will determine who will administer the presidential elections in their respective states in 2024.
The stakes, in some cases, can be big. Secretaries of state often decide the method of counting votes and, in some states, rules around where polling places are located, their hours, and what counts as an eligible ballot. Most importantly, it is usually in the purview of the various secretaries of state to certify who won elections up and down the ballot: from the state house to Congress to president. Famously, in 2000, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris turned out to be a key player in the drama surrounding the presidential election that was decided in the US Supreme Court.
She kicked certain voters off the ballot rolls, ruling them ineligible. Then she certified that George W. Bush won the state by just 537 votes after stopping a recount of the vote in certain areas. The upshot: her decisions paved the way for Bush to win the presidency. (Though other recounts from media organizations later concluded that it was unlikely Bush would lose had the recounts continued.)
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State estimates it will raise $15 million in the midterm elections, a 10-fold increase from its previous record. Some of the donors may believe that electing the right people to these positions isn’t about the Democratic Party, but about saving democracy itself.
Republicans, meanwhile, also are expecting an increase in money going to help their cause. And, unlike last time, Trump is in on the action. He has so far endorsed three candidates for secretary of state, all in states crucial in the 2024 presidential election. One of the three is the Republican who is challenging Raffensperger in a primary.
Where the action – and money – will go is to swing states with secretary of state elections next year, including Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The presidential race in each of them was decided by fewer than 9 percentage points in 2020.
In addition to his personal grudge in Georgia, Trump’s intentions should be very clear based on the candidates he is backing in Arizona and Michigan.
In Arizona, the Democratic incumbent Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is running for the open seat for governor. The person Trump is backing for the now open Secretary of State’s race is Mark Finchem, a state representative and one of the loudest voices in the “Stop the Steal” campaign following the 2020 election. He was also in Washington on Jan. 6.
In Michigan, Trump is backing a community college professor who has never run for office before. But Kristina Karamo has been adamant about one thing: Her belief that Trump won Michigan in the 2020 election, not Joe Biden, even though there is zero evidence for that claim. As for the deadly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, she believes that was done by left-wing Antifa activists, something that even Fox News prime-time personalities have since shot down.
Karamo is one of three Republicans vying to take on Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson next year. Benson is campaigning on her record of improving wait times at polling places.
What will be interesting is whether grass-roots donors and activists will move their attention entirely to secretary of state elections if they think Republican control in Congress is inevitable or irrelevant, given how little legislation is passed there.
But what is clear is that these down-ballot contests will be watched next year like never before.