Candidates for top election posts fundraising at record-setting pace: Report

Relitigating the 2020 election is defining races in battleground states.

January 12, 2022, 5:00 AM

An analysis of preliminary data published Wednesday indicates that many candidates for top election administration roles are fundraising at a record-setting clip, with some of the biggest hauls going to those who have made 2020 election denial a central tenet of their message to voters.

In Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota, the key battleground states where data is already available, "fundraising in secretary of state races is two and a half times higher than it was by the same point in either of the last two election cycles," according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan organization that tracks elections and voting rights.

Brennan Center analysts credit increased political polarization and controversy over the 2020 election for the deluge of money flooding these races, which have historically been low-profile affairs involving modest sums of fundraising.

PHOTO: Activists from local organizations marched through the city to call for the protection of votes over concerns of a stolen election in Detroit, Nov. 7, 2020.
Activists from local organizations marched through the city to call for the protection of votes over concerns of a stolen election in Detroit, Nov. 7, 2020.
NurPhoto via Getty Images, FILE

As chief election officials in many states -- who often wield immense power over the administration of federal, state and local elections -- secretaries of state have taken center stage as the nation grapples with core democratic issues.

"Formerly contested on dry issues of bureaucratic processes, these elections are being infused with substantive politics, with more and more candidates making election denial, or opposition to it, central to their campaigns," the Brennan Center authors wrote.

"Indeed, as far as we are aware," the authors continued, "this is the first time in the modern era that questions about the legitimacy of elections have played such a prominent role in contests for election officials."

Many Republican candidates for election administrator posts are campaigning on the false notion that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from President Donald Trump -- a dangerous falsity that is rewarding those pedaling it most fervently, according to the Brennan Center analysis.

PHOTO: Georgia Rep. Jody Hice and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are pictured in a composite file image.
Georgia Rep. Jody Hice and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are pictured in a composite file image.
Getty Images, FILE

In Georgia, for example, where Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is seeking reelection in a crowded field, challenger Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., who, as a member of Congress, objected to certifying President Joe Biden's victory, outraised all other candidates -- including Raffensperger -- through mid-2021.

Hice landed more than $500,000 in the three months after launching his campaign, the Brennan Center found, backed by a mix of small-dollar supporters and national GOP donors such as Richard Uihlein of Uline Inc. Hice has said that if 2020 was a "fair election, it would be a different outcome."

In Michigan, however, a different story is emerging. Through mid-October of last year, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic incumbent, had raised $1.2 million -- more than five times what she had brought in at that point in the 2018 contest.

Benson has attracted national attention for her outspoken criticism of Trump and those who have cast doubt on the 2020 presidential race.

"There is a growing understanding that what's on the ballot in 2022 is, in some measure, nonpartisan election administration," Larry Norden, a co-author of the report, told ABC News. "And that's attracting a lot more money."

PHOTO: Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during the U.S. presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020.
Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during the U.S. presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

While it is too early to identify the new sources of fundraising, Norden said one trend has already emerged: a flood of out-of-state donations. In Georgia, 22% of donations have come from donors based in other states, a marked uptick from 2018, when only 13% of donations came from elsewhere.

Some strategists say Trump's proclivity to endorse loyalists up and down state and local ballots has motivated major national donors and political organizations to play a more active role in elections that, in past election cycles, would not have gotten their attention.

"[Trump and his allies are] trying to run out establishment Republicans and elect Trump loyalists at every level of government," said Sarah Longwell, strategic director at Republican Voters Against Trump, a coalition of conservatives opposed to Trump. "Trump is running a widespread insurgent strategy that is meant to continue to undercut traditional Republican candidates."

It is not uncommon for fundraising to increase each cycle with the cost of elections. But the amount of money being pumped into races for election administrators is unprecedented. In the coming weeks, new disclosure filings are expected to show how these campaigns fared in fundraising through the end of the year, allowing a better glimpse at where candidates stand now.

PHOTO: A man with a Stop the Steal sign stands in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
A man with a Stop the Steal sign stands in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images, FILE

Wednesday's reporting from the Brennan Center is the first installment in a forthcoming series on contests for governors, secretaries of state and local election officials -- offices that carry an outsized role in administering the vote.

Analysts will examine fundraising trends and messaging in those races, with a particular focus on how candidates discuss the false notion that the previous election cycle was somehow compromised.

"Nowhere will this issue be more important than in the contests for the offices that will have a direct role in the administration and certification of election results," the authors of Wednesday's report wrote.

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