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Big bucks flow into state races for election officials

In Michigan, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has raised five times more than she did in the previous election cycle.
Image: People vote in the Michigan primary election in Detroit on March 10, 2020
People vote in a primary in Detroit on March 10, 2020.Jeff Kowalsky / AFP - Getty Images file

Candidates for top election official in battleground states are raking in an unusual amount of cash compared to previous years, according to a new report.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found in an analysis released Wednesday that campaign contributions for election administrator contests are surging in some of the states that played key roles in the 2020 presidential election.

In three battleground states with available fundraising data — Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota — candidates for secretary of state have raised 2½ times more than at the same point in the previous two election cycles.

The figures underscore how once-overlooked races are now deeply partisan contests, in large part because of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud in 2020. Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin all have elections for secretary of state this year, and voter fraud claims and conspiracy theories are playing roles in each.

“These have traditionally been sleepy bureaucratic races that no one's heard of, and we're seeing much more attention being paid to them and this feeling that the stakes are higher,” said Ian Vandewalker, a co-author of the report. “Candidates on both sides are saying democracy is at stake if I win or lose — it’s pretty much unheard of in our lifetimes.”

In Georgia, four candidates have already raised more money than GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had at this point in the 2018 cycle. The surge has been fueled in part by a jump in out-of-state money, according to the Brennan Center report.

Raffensperger had raised less than $100,000 at this point four years ago, but he has so far raised nearly $400,000 for this year’s race, according to the report. Republican Rep. Jody Hice — a Trump-endorsed candidate for secretary of state who has said Trump would have won Georgia if the election had been “fair" — has out-raised the entire field of candidates, with more than $575,000.

In Michigan, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has raised $1.2 million — five times what she had raised at this point heading into the 2018 election. Republican Kristina Karamo, a Trump-backed challenger who has advanced a number of conspiracy theories about the election and the Jan. 6 riot, has amassed more than $164,000.

“It’s kind of amazing that Brad Raffensperger and Jocelyn Benson are household names,” Vandewalker said. “That's definitely fueling fundraising success and, again, early indications that it may be fueling fundraising from out-of-state donors.”

Funding has also spiked for Minnesota candidates and national groups boosting election administrator candidates compared to previous years, the Brennan Center found.

In 2019, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State raised $202,000; in the first half of 2021, it raised more than $1 million. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports secretary of state candidates, has had record fundraising numbers, as well, Fox Business reported.

Vandewalker said he expects the trend to continue to play out until Election Day, with outside groups and political action committees getting more involved.

“It’s a rule of campaign finance that the most money comes in at the last minute,” he said.