ATLANTA (AP) — Add another contestant group to the blank races for Congress and governor that will dominate this year’s midterm elections: secretaries of state.
Former President Donald Trump’s attempts to reverse the 2020 election results and his subsequent endorsements of candidates for state electoral offices who are sympathetic to his views have elevated these races to high profile status. At stake, say Democrats and others concerned with fair elections, is nothing less than American democracy.
“If they win the general election, we have real problems on our hands,” said former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican who pushed back against false allegations by Trump and his allies about widespread fraud. in the 2020 presidential election. “It’s an effort to replace the people overseeing these races — to change the rules so the results come out the way they want them to.”
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The primary season gets off to a strong start next week with elections in Ohio and Indiana. Voters in Ohio will decide which candidate emerges from the Republican primary for secretary of state, with the winner preferred to ultimately win the job in the GOP-dominated state.
Primaries for major electoral offices will follow over the next few weeks in Nebraska, Idaho, Alabama and presidential battleground Georgia. While Indiana also holds a primary Tuesday, candidates for secretary of state and some other positions won’t be decided until party conventions in June.
In total, voters in about two dozen states will decide who will be their state’s next election official this year. In three politically important states – Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas – the office will be filled by whoever wins the gubernatorial race. In New Hampshire, the decision will be made by the state legislature – currently controlled by Republicans.
States United Action, a nonpartisan advocacy organization co-founded by Whitman, has tracked the state racing secretary and identified nearly two dozen Republican candidates who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election.
That includes John Adams, a former state lawmaker challenging outgoing Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Adams said “there’s no way Trump is losing” and said LaRose was no different from Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and national suffrage advocate who is running for governor in Georgia.
LaRose didn’t say much about the 2020 election in the campaign, other than to say it was safe in Ohio and to tout his office’s pursuit of voter fraud cases. It marked a departure after the 2020 vote in which he praised the work of bipartisan election officials to organize a smooth election, promoted voter access and presented statistics showing how rare voter fraud is.
Earlier this year, LaRose brushed off questions about his shifting rhetoric.
“Unfortunately, some people want to make this a political issue,” he said. “Of course, it’s fair to be concerned about the integrity of the election.”
The pivot was enough to earn him an endorsement from Trump, who is eyeing another presidential bid in 2024 and said LaRose was “dedicated to election security.” LaRose touted the endorsement.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said it was important for Republican secretaries of state, in particular, to tell the truth about the 2020 election.
“Those secretaries who accept support from Holocaust deniers or accept support from a former president who openly interfered with the results of free and fair elections are abdicating their role and responsibility to present themselves as nonpartisan gatekeepers and choose to put their own partisan agendas before democracy,” Benson said in an interview.
This year, the most high-profile races will be in four of the six states where Trump contested his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Michigan. Trump has endorsed all but one of the nominees for secretary of state, backing those who support his false claims.
There is no evidence of widespread fraud or wrongdoing. Judges, including those appointed by Trump, dismissed dozens of lawsuits brought by the former president and his allies after the 2020 election.
Last year, an Associated Press review of all potential voter fraud cases in 2020 in the six states contested by Trump did not find enough cases to change the result.
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Kristina Karamo, Trump’s choice in Michigan, is the first to qualify for the November election after Republicans in the state nominated her at the party’s convention on April 23. A community college professor, Karamo rose to prominence after the 2020 election, saying she saw irregularities in the processing of mail-in ballots while serving as an election observer in Detroit.
At a rally with Trump ahead of the convention, she accused the media of trying to demonize her, adding that “corruption in our electoral systems is a threat to national security.” She will face Benson, a former law school dean seeking his second term.
“All you have to imagine is what it would look like or what it would have been like if Brad Raffensperger had said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to find you those votes and deliver Georgia to you,'” Benson said. “That’s what could happen if you have a Holocaust denier as Secretary of State.”
Raffensperger is the Republican secretary of state in Georgia who resisted enormous pressure to maintain the results of the presidential race there, won by Biden. At some point after the election, Trump called Raffensperger and asked him to “find” nearly 12,000 votes to overturn Biden’s victory.
Of the 25 secretary of state races on the ballot this year, nine incumbent Republicans and seven Democrats are running to retain their seats. While only one of the Democratic incumbents has drawn a challenger, seven Republican secretaries will face at least one GOP opponent who denies Biden’s victory or makes unsubstantiated claims that the election isn’t secure.
That includes Raffensperger, who pushed back against Trump’s demands and attracted three main challengers. Among them is one Trump-endorsed, U.S. Representative Jody Hice, who opposed having Georgia’s electoral votes counted for Biden.
In nine states, incumbents have opted out of re-election, are running for senior positions, or are term-limited, leaving contests open. That includes Arizona and Nevada, which are holding primaries in the coming months.
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Both races feature Republican candidates — Mark Finchem of Arizona and Jim Marchant of Nevada — who questioned the outcome of the 2020 election.
Another high-profile race is unfolding in Colorado, where a Republican county clerk under investigation for a security breach in voting systems is running to challenge Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat seeking a second term.
Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters denied the charges, calling them politically motivated. She was a frequent guest in conservative media and appeared at various events with Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and Trump ally who sought to prove that voting machines were somehow manipulated in 2020.
In an interview earlier this year, Peters said she was committed to finding out the truth about what happened in 2020 and hoped that “the powers that be — instead of taking the time to attack me — would solve violent crimes, investigate election irregularities and find the truth.”
Colorado Republicans will decide who their candidate will be at the end of June.
“Americans are going to have a very simple choice – do we want people who oversee elections and who believe in respecting the will of the voter no matter how they voted?” Griswold said. “Or do we want hardline politicians who will do whatever it takes to swing the election in their favor and claim victory, regardless of how the American people voted?”
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.