Republican election deniers used the 2022 midterms to target battleground positions for secretary of state that would allow them to take over key electoral systems and turn the “big lie” into official election protocols.
They completely failed.
The Associated Press has projected that Democrat Cisco Aguilar will defeat Republican election denier Jim Marchant in Nevada’s race, a result that confirmed Democrats had pulled off a clean sweep of the major contests for secretary of state that GOP election deniers had targeted.
In addition to Nevada, Democrats beat election conspiracy theorists in the secretary of state races in Arizona, Michigan and Minnesota. They defeated Republican Doug Mastriano in the Pennsylvania governor race, thwarting an election denier who promised to appoint a conspiratorial secretary of state, even if he wouldn’t tell voters who he would have picked. Democrats won additional secretary of state races over election-denying opponents in Massachusetts and New Mexico, bluer states where they were heavily favored.
The results are a victory for American democracy, which has come under assault from Republican candidates who embraced former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, rigged or otherwise compromised by widespread fraud and malfeasance. A GOP victory in any of this year’s swing-state races would have given an election denier a platform to put future contests at risk, meaning Democrats needed to pull off an improbable sweep to fully safeguard the 2024 presidential race.
“The message this sends is that American voters care deeply about democracy, and they will stand up to extremism and effectively stop it,” Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D), the chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, told HuffPost. “This was a fork in the road for the history of our country. We could have gone down the path of extremism, conspiracy and the rolling back of fundamental freedoms, or we could have chosen the path of democracy and fundamental freedoms. So we’re elated.”
Nearly 300 election deniers won GOP primaries this year, according to The Washington Post, and more than 170 have won the general so far, primarily in safe red districts and states. But the battleground secretary of state races posed an especially dangerous risk — and a major test of whether voters would open their arms to Republicans who’d made tearing down democracy the explicit aim of their candidacies.
Secretaries of state serve as the top elections official in most states, and they oversee everything from basic election procedures, including how votes are counted, to the certification of the results. Last year, conspiratorial candidates led by Marchant formed the America First Secretary of State Coalition, with the goal of using those offices to exert partisan control over elections and the 2024 contest specifically.
“When my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024,” Marchant said at a Trump rally last month.
Many of the coalition’s members had played key roles in efforts to undermine the 2020 contest.
Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, who won his secretary of state primary in August, had met with Trump officials as they plotted a scheme involving fake electors to overturn results in Arizona and other states. In Michigan, GOP secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo rose to prominence after baselessly claiming to have witnessed fraud in 2020. And Marchant didn’t just claim the 2020 election was stolen from Trump; he also waged an unfounded challenge to his own loss in a Nevada congressional race while spreading similar lies about fraud.
Finchem has said he would not have certified the result of President Joe Biden’s narrow 2020 victory in Arizona. Had he or any of the other candidates won this year, they could have used their positions to sow chaos around the 2024 election in various ways — with several, including Finchem, suggesting that they would not certify the results of a Democratic victory in the next presidential contest.
The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, a party campaign arm, mobilized early in the 2022 cycle, in an effort to focus the attention of the party, donors and voters on a level of the ballot that is often overlooked or outright ignored. The association shattered fundraising records, and Democratic candidates outraised their election denier opponents across the board.
The prevalence of Republican election deniers, along with their open declarations about wanting to wield partisan influence over contests, made it easy for Democrats to define the stakes of the races, said Kim Rogers, the Democratic association’s executive director.
“We started pushing the message in 2021 that these races matter and that secretaries of state are essential to defending our democracy,” Rogers said. “We let folks know what was at stake, and we used that to define our opponents, because these were people who across the board were running on election denialism and conspiracy theories.”
Throughout the campaigns, Democrats hammered that message, warning voters that the most basic aspect of elections — that the person who wins the most votes wins the race — was at risk.
“We’ve been running against the guy who has basically said he’s willing to pick the winners, and stop people from voting, to muck up the system on purpose,” Democrat Adrian Fontes told HuffPost of Finchem, his Republican rival, in October. “He has said it repeatedly and in a variety of different ways.”
“We will be looking to the American people to decide if they want to live in a democracy, or if they don’t,” Fontes said of the race. “It’s a binary choice. There’s no middle ground here.”
That message clearly resonated, and not just with Democrats and moderate voters. In each of the major battleground states, secretary of state candidates who cast doubt on and spread lies about the 2020 election lagged other Republicans on the statewide ticket.
This trend carried over even to red states where election deniers did prevail. Diego Morales, the America First coalition’s Republican candidate in Indiana, won his race but finished nearly 5 points behind Sen. Todd Young. The gap wasn’t explained solely by Young’s incumbency advantage: Morales also lagged the GOP nominee in an open seat race for state auditor by 7 points.
Chuck Gray, an election denier who ran unopposed for Wyoming secretary of state after winning his GOP primary, similarly earned thousands fewer votes than other unopposed statewide candidates. More than 13,000 voters wrote in an alternate secretary of state choice — the most of any race in Wyoming, according to unofficial state results.
The projected victories for Democrats across the board will not totally vanquish the threat of election denial, and the success of such candidates in Republican primaries and safe GOP areas suggests that the “big lie” will remain a force inside the party.
Alabama Republican Wes Allen won his secretary of state race, joining Gray and Morales as election deniers who will run red state electoral systems next year.
Republican Amy Loudenbeck could still win the secretary of state’s race in Wisconsin, where the office does not currently oversee elections. Loudenbeck has said that Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled Legislature should restore that power to the secretary of state if she wins.
At least 153 Republicans who have spread lies about the 2020 outcome will serve in the U.S. House next year. Thirteen others will be in the Senate — the chamber where Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) launched an effort to undermine the 2020 results, helping to spark the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection last year.
But the Democratic sweep of key secretary of state races added to the party’s run of strong results in state legislative races and other down-ballot contests in which GOP election denial played a major role.
“Given the choice between democracy and extremism, voters chose the candidates who promised to continue free and fair elections,” Rogers said. “That’s a huge win for democracy.”