Democrats seeking high office in battleground states this year are increasingly pitching themselves to voters as a bulwark against any efforts that Republican allies of former President Donald Trump might make to subvert the next presidential election.
The six states where President Joe Biden scored his narrowest victories — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — will all elect governors this year.
Voters in four of those states will also choose secretaries of state who will administer future elections, while the new governor of Pennsylvania will appoint someone to that role. The fight could be particularly consequential in Wisconsin, where two GOP candidates for governor favor scrapping the bipartisan commission that oversees elections.
Trump leaned on Republican state officials to overturn his losses in 2020 and is backing primary challengers in Georgia against Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger because they refused. The former president, who remains influential with GOP voters, is promoting midterm candidates who support restrictive voting laws and who echo his debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
Layered atop Trump's eagerness to have loyalists in place is the inability, so far, of Senate Democrats to pass federal election legislation they contend is necessary to blunt state-level voting restrictions. Democratic governors and secretaries of state are already pushing back on proposed voting restrictions advanced by conservative legislatures.
“I think what is clear is that the state actors, like a governor, are going to be critical to defending our democracy,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat running for governor, said in an interview with NBC News. “And Pennsylvania, I believe, will be at the epicenter of that fight.”
Voting rights and election integrity rated as a top-three issue facing the country — behind jobs and the economy and the pandemic — in an NBC News poll last month. Among the adults surveyed, 76 percent said they believed there was a threat to democracy and majority rule.
“What’s happened to our democracy?” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, wondered in an interview. “We should make it easier for eligible people to vote, not more difficult.”
In a video that played before recent GOP debates among Senate and gubernatorial hopefuls in Pennsylvania, Trump repeated his lie that he won the state in 2020 and stressed that the “vote counter is more important than the candidate.” Shapiro, who boasts of beating Trump and his allies dozens of times in court over cases of alleged voter fraud, said appointing a secretary of state “who will respect the rule of law” is among his top priorities.
Two other Democrats running for governor this year — Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas — emerged as national advocates for voting rights in recent years, biding their time after losing campaigns four years ago, Abrams for governor and O'Rourke for the Senate.
O’Rourke organized voter registration efforts — even driving to register some voters personally — and raised money for the state lawmakers who fled Texas while fighting some of the strictest voting rights restrictions in the country last year. Abrams testified before Congress repeatedly in support of federal voting legislation and threw her support behind potential compromise legislation.
In Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has seen her political stock rise since the 2020 election. Like Shapiro, she’s hoping to parlay that profile into a promotion to governor. Trump has endorsed Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor in Phoenix who has said she would not have certified Biden’s victory in the state, in the crowded Republican primary.
“I don’t know that I’d have the same momentum that I have," Hobbs said of her bid for governor, following her high-profile defense of the 2020 election and its results as Arizona's secretary of state.
Democrats running for secretary of state this year said that while the job has gotten harder — fighting misinformation, facing harassment on the job — their platform is bigger.
"There are people who do not believe in democracy running to oversee elections. That's like giving a bank robber the keys to a bank," said Jena Griswold, Colorado's secretary of state and chair of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State.
That platform — and voters' newfound understanding of their work — has made campaigning easier.
The 2020 election “fundamentally changed the conversation about being in this extremely administrative position,” said New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who is seeking re-election. “It’s changed the conversation from being about how well do you administrate to whether or not you believe our democracy is in peril.”
The increased awareness has translated into campaign contributions. Candidates for secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin are raking in contributions that are collectively three times higher than at this point in the 2018 cycle and eight times higher than the same point in 2014 cycle, according to a report out this month from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, is running for a second term this year in a state Biden won and where Trump challenged the results in court with baseless claims of fraud.
Trump has endorsed Republican Kristina Karamo, who worked as a Detroit poll challenger in 2020 and is known for making false election claims.
“Those who have supported me in the past have in some cases doubled or tripled or quadrupled what they’ve given in the past because they have seen the sense of urgency increase in my race,” Benson said.
Georgia’s Raffensperger is one of the few Republicans running on a defense of the election system, while also playing to those skeptical of past results by pushing for a constitutional amendment that would reaffirm that only citizens can vote.
Raffensperger said his pitch to voters includes a clinical explanation of how Trump lost the state by fewer than 12,000 votes in 2020. He tells them of the 28,000 Georgians who skipped the presidential race but voted for down-ballot candidates, including then-Sen. David Perdue, a Republican who later lost a runoff. (Perdue is now challenging Kemp for governor, with Trump’s endorsement.)
“And then I say, ‘Let that sink in,’” said Raffensperger, who is facing a GOP primary against Trump-backed Rep. Jody Hice. “And then I say, ‘That’s why President Trump came up short.’”
In Wisconsin, Evers is likely to present a strong contrast against his opponent this fall on the issues of elections and voting rights. Last August, he vetoed six Republican bills that he believed would restrict voter access, including a measure that would have ended a photo ID exemption for voters with disabilities.
The two leading Republican candidates, Rebecca Kleefisch and Kevin Nicholson, both want to disband the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the bipartisan body that administers elections in the state. Republicans favored the commission when it was created in 2015 but have scrutinized its work since the 2020 election. This month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined a lawsuit from Kleefisch, a former lieutenant governor who had challenged the commission’s guidance for ballot drop boxes.
Evers and other Democrats connected the importance of election issues to progress on issues that resonate more with voters — jobs, health care, education and infrastructure.
“Of course it is a priority, but I just have to keep saying this: The people of Wisconsin do care about kitchen-table issues, too,” Evers said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time. But it is important, obviously, to save our democracy.”
CORRECTION (Feb. 16, 2022, 6:22 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the rate at which candidates for secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin are taking in contributions compared to this point in 2014, based on incorrect information from the Brennan Center for Justice. According to an updated report from the center, the rate is eight times higher, not almost eight times higher.