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Nevada Democrats sound alarm as election denier leads secretary of state race

Jim Marchant, the GOP nominee, continues to poll ahead of his Democratic opponent despite a much smaller presence on the trail.
Jim Marchant speaks at a Republican election night watch party on Nov. 3, 2020, in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP file

LAS VEGAS — Jim Marchant, the election-denying Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada, has so far been outspent and out campaigned by his Democratic opponent. But as the first counties in the state begin to mail out ballots to voters, he has consistently polled ahead of Democrat Cisco Aguilar.

Democratic groups have rushed in with ad buys and organizing efforts to try to boost Aguilar’s prospects in the key battleground state. But some within the party have sounded the alarm that it's not enough.

“Marchant can’t be trusted, but I just don’t think a lot of people are even paying attention to the race,” said Donna West, a former chair of the Clark County Democratic Party who now volunteers as an organizer for the county party. “We’ve been knocking on doors, and people aren’t aware of the race. They still don’t understand what the secretary of state does.”

The comments by West and others interviewed by NBC News underscore the uphill climb faced by Democrats in winning the office in Nevada, and in other purple states. Along with Arizona and Michigan, Nevada is one of several key battlegrounds where an election denier backed by former President Donald Trump is running for secretary of state, a position that in most states oversees elections. Nonpartisan groups monitoring races with election deniers, like States United Action, as well as election experts in academia, warn that any of those candidates winning could contribute to an even more robust effort to overturn the next presidential election.

Marchant's lead in the polls comes despite him holding few public events and not running any ads. But on Saturday, he is set to join Trump at a rally in Reno to boost Republican candidates up and down the ticket. The former president is holding a similar rally in Mesa, Arizona, on Sunday.

In recent days, Democratic-aligned groups have jumped into the Nevada race, releasing television ads slamming Marchant — who falsely claims Trump defeated Joe Biden in Nevada and has said he wouldn’t have certified the results there in 2020 — and attempting to educate voters on the role of the office. 

But even Aguilar, an attorney and former staff member for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, acknowledged the political headwinds working against him.

In an interview, Aguilar worried that when voters are “looking at gas prices,” which remain far higher in Nevada than the national average, “and especially rent,” which has increased in the state faster than in other metro areas, it hurts Democrats like him.

“It’s a kitchen table issue," he said. Several national polls this year have shown voters to trust Republicans significantly more than Democrats on economic issues, which remain a top concern for voters.

In an effort to redirect voters' attention toward election rights, several outside groups have recently run ads pounding Marchant over his past statements about the 2020 election and his policy positions on election oversight.

Since Sept. 1, Aguilar and outside groups supporting him have spent $1.3 million on political ads, according to AdImpact, a political ad-tracking firm. Marchant and outside groups supporting him have, over the same period, spent zero dollars, according to the firm. 

Nevertheless, Marchant has led in all recent public polling. A Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights poll released this week showed Marchant up 39% to 31% — outside the margin of error — though 21% of respondents remained undecided. A CNN poll released Thursday showed Marchant up 46% to 43%, within the margin of error, with 11% saying they’d vote for neither candidate, wouldn’t vote or had no opinion. 

Aguilar’s campaign has said it built its strategy around the presumption that many Nevadans wouldn’t pay close attention to down-ballot races until ballots started going out (Nevada is a universal mail voting state) — and had planned to further amp up its advertising and voter contact efforts during the final weeks of the race to sway undecided voters.

“Most everyday Nevadans don’t want to spend their time thinking about politics before they get their sample ballots in the mail. We knew we needed to talk to them when they’re tuned in,” campaign manager Gabriel di Chiara said in an interview.

Di Chiara said the campaign earmarked more than 80% of the money it had raised for the past four weeks of the cycle and predicted a boost from the coming ads from outside groups in the final weeks. Door-knocking efforts by the state party and the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which endorsed Democrats this cycle, will include voter education efforts on the office and Aguilar’s candidacy, he said.

Mike Noble, whose firm headed the Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights survey, said such reasoning is actually savvy for down-ballot candidates.

“Since they have finite resources, they hold their money until the last 30, 45 days and spend it only right when voters are going to make their decisions,” he said at a recent Las Vegas event NBC News attended.

Noble, however, noted that “when you have these national winds going, whether it’s to the left or to the right,” down-ballot candidates like Aguilar are “kind of hostage” to the issues of the moment — like concerns over the economy.

William Davis, a Las Vegas Uber driver and small business owner, said he’d be voting for the Republican candidates in the Senate and governor races on that issue alone. Davis, a Republican, said he “hadn’t thought much” about whether the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and remained undecided in the secretary of state race.

“I have to read up on it more, but I’d prefer to vote Republican, because of the economy,” he said. 

Marchant didn't respond to multiple phone calls from NBC News. In an interview with NBC News earlier this year, Marchant said he wouldn’t rule out, if he was to hold the office in 2024, advocating for an alternate slate of Trump electors if Trump were on the ballot. (Marchant pushed for an alternate slate in 2020). 

The dynamics in Arizona’s secretary of state race are similar. 

GOP nominee Mark Finchem, another election-denying conspiracy theorist, is also running ahead of his Democratic opponent, despite being outspent (though Finchem has campaigned more aggressively than Marchant). 

Since Sept. 1, Finchem and outside groups supporting his campaign have spent less than $1,200 on ads, according to AdImpact. His opponent, former Maricopa County recorder Adrian Fontes, and groups supporting him, spent almost $1.2 million since then, according to the firm.

A CNN poll released Thursday showed Finchem leading Fontes 49% to 45%. Another 7% said they’d vote for neither, wouldn’t vote or had no opinion.

“We are out campaigning, we are outspending,” Fontes said in an interview. “But I don’t know what to make of it,” he added, referring to polls showing him trailing. “That’s not going to stop me from pushing all the way to Nov. 8.”

Finchem — who has ties to QAnon and the Oath Keepers and attended Trump's “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — didn't respond to emails and phone calls from NBC News.

He and Marchant, as well as Kristina Karamo, the Republican secretary of state nominee in Michigan, are all members of the pro-Trump America First Secretary of State Coalition, though polling shows Karamo’s race is far less competitive.

Trump's prominence in these races — he campaigned for Karamo last week ahead of his dual rallies this weekend — has only added to the concern Nevada Democrats have for the secretary-of-state race.

“This could be the last free and fair election in Nevada,” West said. “We need to do more. He’s coming in for them. I don’t think we’re doing enough.”