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Financing of Races for Offices that Oversee Elections: August 2022

Campaigns based on election denial have racked up primary wins and financial support from outside groups and donors, but so have opponents of the Big Lie.

Publicado: Agosto 1, 2022
Money and campaign ads
Daniel Cullen/Spyros Arsenis/EyeEm/Alan Schein Photography/Getty
Ver la serie entera Tracking Races for Election Administration Positions

Across the coun­try, states are holding elections for offices like secret­ary of state that will play key roles in running the 2024 elec­tions. In many states, the parties’ nominees are known, and the general election is already underway. These races are attract­ing far more atten­tion this year than in recent memory. Part of the reason for the increas­ing visib­il­ity of elec­tion offi­cials is the spread of the Big Lie that voter fraud “stole” the 2020 race from Pres­id­ent Trump. In state after state, campaigns focus on elec­tion denial as a cent­ral issue. 

In this series, the Bren­nan Center exam­ines the finances and polit­ical messages in contests that are import­ant to the future of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. Through­out 2022, we regu­larly look at relev­ant contests in battle­ground states that had the closest results in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. As candid­ates file disclos­ure forms and inform­a­tion becomes avail­able, we examine ques­tions such as how much money is raised, who the biggest donors are, and how much outside spend­ers, like super PACs and dark money groups, spend. 

Here are some of our newest key findings:

  • Across six states with a secretary of state election this year, fundraising by candidates has totaled $16.3 million, more than double that raised by an analogous point in 2018. The biggest increase is in Nevada, where candidates have raised $2.6 million — more than five times the last cycle.
  • Out-of-state money is rising as well, showing that the increase is not coming only from constituents of these state offices. Arizona has seen the largest boom in money from other states, almost four times more than in 2018.
  • Across all six states, 12 election denial candidates have together raised $7.3 million. That’s less than the $8.1 million collected altogether by the 10 candidates who have taken a stance against election denial — most of which was raised by incumbents, who have an inherent fundraising advantage. Without incumbents, the six remaining opponents of election denial have together raised $4 million.
  • Outside spenders are active in secretary of state races, in which super PACs and dark money groups have spent at least $8.8 million, with $5.6 million in Arizona alone. While some of this spending pushes election denial messages, most of what we have found opposes election denial candidates and appears to be funded by traditional Republican groups or liberal organizers, including labor. We have also seen outside spending involving election denial in local races in Nevada and Wisconsin.
  • Prominent election deniers have attracted large donations — often the legal maximum — from donors who are active in multiple states. Several prominent donors have ties to the January 6 insurrection and other challenges to the 2020 election result, including former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, construction software CEO Michael Rydin, and packing supplies magnate Richard Uihlein. Most of the donors we identified had not given to secretary of state candidates before this election.

At this point in the primary season, the November ballot is set for races for governor or secretary of state in several states in our sample, and election denial candidates have seen mixed results. Election deniers advanced in seven of the ten contests for statewide office where parties have either held a primary or endorsed a presumptive nominee. In the coming months, there will be six more primary elections in four states where election deniers are running for statewide office. 

In Georgia, incumbents beat back challenges from election denialists in Republican primaries for governor and secretary of state. Michigan’s state Republican Party has endorsed an election denier for secretary of state, who will face the incumbent in November. In Minnesota, the GOP has endorsed election deniers for both governor and secretary of state. Nevada’s Republican gubernatorial nominee has acknow­ledged that Biden won, although he has ques­­tioned whether it was “fair and square,” and an election denier won the primary for Nevada secretary of state. Republican gubernatorial nominees in Florida and Pennsylvania have cast doubt on the 2020 election.

In addition, a number of local races we are tracking have seen election deniers advance to the general election. Election deniers will be on the November ballot in multiple Nevada counties, including challengers who beat their own party’s incumbent in Storey County and Washoe County. And voters in Travis County, Texas, will see an election denier on the ballot in November. 

These trends are not unique to our sample of battleground states, of course. There will be at least 120 election deniers on general election ballots in federal and state races this year. 

Some candidates who lost primaries this year have used election denial narratives to claim their own losses were illegitimate. Joey Gilbert, defeated in the Republican gubernatorial primary in Nevada by approximately 26,000 votes, said after the race was called, “I will concede nothing.” He also claimed that there were several violations of election law in the primary. In July, he filed a lawsuit contesting the result. The suit claims that the reported result violates mathematical laws that govern the ratio between mail, early, and Election Day vote totals — claims similar to debunked arguments about 2020. The suit claims votes for Gilbert in the Republican primary were somehow transferred to the incumbent running in the Democratic primary.

The phenomenon is not limited to the battleground states in our sample.Tina Peters (R) lost her primary bid for Colorado secretary of state by 88,000 votes after a campaign in which she questioned the 2020 results and defended herself against criminal charges that, as clerk of Mesa County, she allowed unauthorized access to election systems. When her race was called, Peters said, “We didn’t lose, we just found evidence of more fraud . . . they’re cheating and we’ll prove it once again.”

At least one candidate has turned denying the legitimacy of his loss into fundraising success. Joe Dill lost the Republican primary for a county council seat in Greenville County, South Carolina, and sought to overturn the result by pointing to “irregularities” like voters being told to vote in precincts other than where they live and problems with voting machine calibration. Dill raised 66 percent of his funding for the cycle — $7,665 — after the June 14 primary. 

Even without a loss, some candidates are making claims of election fraud in this year’s primaries. The winner of the Nevada GOP primary for secretary of state, Jim Marchant, expressed doubts about the June election, saying there were “anomalies — malicious or accidental,” and “I’m surprised that I won.” And in Arizona, candidates have suggested that the upcoming primary will be tainted. Gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R) said a primary opponent “might be trying to set the stage for another steal.” Mark Finchem (R), running for secretary of state, said in June: “Ain’t gonna be no concession speech coming from this guy. I’m going to demand a 100 percent hand count if there’s the slightest hint that there’s an impropriety.”

This week, Arizona and Michigan hold primaries that will determine nominees for governor or secretary of state. Next week, on August 9, there will be primaries in Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

Fundraising Analysis

Across the six battleground states with secretary of state elections this year, fundraising by candidates continues to outpace recent elections. The $16.3 million flowing into these races so far is more than double the amount at a similar point in the 2018 cycle.

Across all six states, we have identified 12 election denial candidates, who have together raised $7.3 million. That’s less than the $8.1 million raised altogether by the 10 candidates who have taken a stance against election denial — by, for example, describing opponents’ embrace of the Big Lie as a threat to American democracy. However, much of that is driven by secretaries of state running for reelection and defending their record with the significant fundraising advantage of incumbency. With incumbents removed, six opponents of election denial have together raised $4 million. The 15 remaining candidates who have not taken a stand either way on election denial have together raised approximately $900,000.

Out-of-state donations are on the rise as well. These contributions are notable because they come from people who are not constituents of the secretary of state. In the past, secretary of state races have not typically had a national profile.

The partisan breakdown shows 14 Democratic candidates with $6.4 million altogether and 22 Republicans with $10 million. The parties’ per-candidate averages are the same, however, with approximately $455,000 for Democrats and $454,000 for Republicans.

Candidate fundraising does not paint the whole picture, of course. We have also seen at least $8.8 million in outside spending from super PACs and dark money groups targeting secretary of state races, with $5.6 million in Arizona alone.

These totals reflect the most recent data avail­able for the 2022 cycle and data reflect­ing the closest analog­ous date for past cycles. There are differ­ent report­ing sched­ules in differ­ent states and cycles. In 2022, the latest avail­able data covers the period ending on June 30 in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin, May 31 in Minnesota, and December 31 in Michigan. In past cycles, the closest analog­ous filing period ended on May 31 or July 19 in Minnesota, June 30 in Geor­gia and Wisconsin, either June 30 or mid-August in Arizona, and vary­ing dates in late May to early June in Nevada. In Michigan, the most recent data for this cycle covers a period ending on Decem­ber 31, 2021, and our compar­ison to past cycles also goes through Decem­ber 31 of the year before the elec­tion.

Arizona

This year’s secretary of state race in Arizona is outpacing the 2018 cycle, although not by as large a margin as other states in our sample. Two Republicans lead fundraising: Mark Finchem, who said that “Democrats stole the election,” has raised $1.2 million, and Beau Lane has $1.1 million. 

The contest has been flooded by out-of-state money. Donors from other states have given $1.2 million, almost four times more than in 2018. Finchem has relied the most on out-of-state donors, who account for 59 percent of his itemized contributions. (Under state law, candidates must report the name and address of donations of $100 or more, but smaller donations need not be itemized.) State Rep. Reginald Bolding (D), who has claimed if his campaign is not successful, “Trump’s hand­picked candidate will have control of our elections,” has raised 50 percent of his itemized contributions from outside Arizona.

Independent spending is high in the race — a total of $5.6 million so far — much of it from groups that do not disclose their donors. That is almost 12 times the prior high-water mark for outside spending in recent Arizona secretary of state contests, which was $470,000 in 2014.

This year’s independent spending is largely focused on two candidates, and in each case, it exceeds the candidates’ own revenue. Finchem, although he is the clear fundraising lead with $1.2 million, has been opposed by $1.7 million in expenditures on national email communications by the liberal group MoveOn.

Bolding, whose own fundraising is less than $500,000, has benefited from $2.5 million in independent expenditures. The lion’s share, $1.2 million, came from Arizonans for a Just Democracy, whose website says of the secretary of state race that “our very democracy [is] at stake” and warns that some candidates “will attempt to undermine the will of the voters and over[turn] the results in 2024.” Its major donors include the national liberal dark money group 1630 Fund, Colorado philanthropist Merle Chambers, and $500,000 that churned through a series of groups via transactions of the same amount within one day or a few days, apparently originating with Arizona Wins, a dark money group representing labor and progressive interests. The network of groups spending in favor of Bolding has ties to a nonprofit he founded and directs, Our Voice Our Vote.

Another secretary of state candidate with outside spending in her favor is state Rep. Shawnna Bolick (R), who has said elections are “manipulated” and “elec­tion offi­cials colluded with the judiciary in 2020.” A super PAC called Election Integrity PAC supported her with more than $147,000 in spending. Election Integrity PAC was formed in June and is fully funded by Restoration PAC, which is in turn funded by shipping supplies magnate Richard Uihlein, whose support for election denial is discussed further below.

The gubernatorial contest in Arizona has seen significant outside spending as well, with apparent connections to the election denier movement. Former newscaster Kari Lake, who has repeatedly said that Trump won in 2020, is one of the top-polling candidates in the Republican primary despite being greatly outspent by Karrin Taylor Robson. Lake has benefited from more than $2 million in outside spending by a committee called Put Arizona First, although it is unclear who provided the funds. Disclosures by Put Arizona First list its only donor as SPH Medical LLC and report the donor’s address as the same UPS Store in Phoenix that Put America First uses as its address. No such corporation is registered in Arizona, and a California company by that name denies making the donations. The expenditures paid for ads and texts made by a company owned by state Rep. Jake Hoffman (R), a state senate candidate who served as a false elector for Trump and reportedly still questions the 2020 presidential result. Hoffman has ties to Turning Point USA, which was involved in the January 6 rally and has featured Lake in events and online interviews.

Lake’s leading opponent in the GOP primary, Karrin Taylor Robson, has given more than $13 million to her own campaign, making her haul larger than what the entire gubernatorial field raised in each of the last three elections. Taylor Robson has also seen support from $2.5 million in outside spending from Americans for Prosperity, one of the highest-spending conservative groups in the country.

Georgia

In Georgia, where incumbent Brad Raffensperger (R) won an expensive primary in May, overall fundraising is more than double that of last cycle. Jody Hice, who said that “Trump won Georgia,” raised the most money with $2.5 million but lost in the GOP primary. Raffensperger has raised $2.1 million. In addition, two outside groups — Americans Keeping Country First and Conservatives for Our Future — spent $2 million to produce ads supporting Raffensperger in the lead-up to the primary. These two groups are funded by a partially overlapping set of groups whose own funding sources are obscure, including the American Jobs and Growth Fund and Defend US.

Michigan

Michigan has not released data about candidate fundraising since the reports covering 2021. At that time, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had a commanding financial lead over the party-endorsed Republican, Kristina Karamo, who says elections have “massive corruption.” Benson is being boosted by digital ads from a group called Progress Michigan, which does not reveal the original sources of most of its funding. In July, Progress Michigan accepted $1.5 million from State Victory Action, a national liberal group. A pro-Karamo group, the Karamo SOS Fund, was formed in May but has not reported revenue or expenditures yet.

Minnesota

Minnesota will hold its primary on August 9, but the general election matchup in the secretary of state race is already clear since the parties made their endorsements. The reelection campaign of Secretary of State Steve Simon (D) has a large fundraising advantage, with over $600,000 raised. Republican Kim Crockett, whose campaign showed the party convention a video depicting philanthropist George Soros controlling Simon accompanied by text reading, “Let’s wreck elections forever and ever,” has raised almost $127,000.

Nevada

The contest for secretary of state in Nevada has seen the biggest leap in dollars raised in our sample. The $2.6 million collected in 2022 is more than five times the amount raised by this point in past cycles. The Democratic nominee, Cisco Aguilar, faced no opposition in his primary and has been able to raise $1.1 million. The winner in the GOP primary for secretary of state was Jim Marchant, who said the 2020 election was “stolen.” Marchant won despite being significantly outraised by Jesse Haw, who collected more than $762,000 — although most of that came from the candidate himself. Haw was also supported by $1.2 million in outside spending from a Virginia group called Americans for Secure Elections PAC, which is funded by obscure dark money groups in the Washington, DC, area, like American Advancement and Prosperity Alliance. A Marchant-controlled group, Conservatives for Election Integrity PAC, boosted him with TV ads, although with a much smaller spend.

Outside groups have attempted to influence Washoe County Commission races, including with the use of election denial messages. Cryptocurrency millionaire Robert Beadles of Reno funds a group called the Franklin Project that has endorsed state and local candidates across Nevada. In Washoe County, the group boosted primary challenger Mike Clark (R), who said the 2020 result was “mathematically impossible” and ousted the incumbent. The Franklin Project also endorsed incumbent Jeanne Herman (R), who voted not to certify both the 2020 election and the primary that she won this year. Beadles writes a blog called Operation Sunlight that publishes election conspiracy theories and has attacked opponents of Clark and Herman. Beadles also contributed directly to Marchant and to gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert, who called to “decertify” the 2020 election.

Clark and Herman’s opponents in the GOP primaries were supported by digital ad spending by Open Democracy PAC. Although the ads did not mention election denial, the group’s website says: “We must keep our nation’s election administration infrastructure out of the hands of election deniers.” Open Democracy endorses secretary of state candidates who oppose election denial in several states, and it previously made expenditures in local Wisconsin races that similarly sought to support candidates attacked by election deniers. Those ads claimed that “our democracy is at stake.”

Wisconsin

By this point in past cycles, Wisconsin secretary of state candidate fundraising had not yet started in earnest. This cycle’s almost $218,000 is nearly 12 times the amount raised through June 30 of past election years. Almost 80 percent of that total was raised by State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R). Incumbent Secretary of State Doug La Follette (D) has collected $19,000.

Election Denialism in 2022 Campaigns

Below we highlight some of the examples of election denial that have come to light since our last report. These and other examples are also collected in cumulative state-by-state resources.

Arizona

Kari Lake (R), a front-running candidate for governor who has claimed “Joe Biden did not win,” pree­mpt­ively cast doubt on the outcome of the upcom­ing Arizona primary. She told her support­ers in July that her top oppon­ent “might be trying to set the stage for another steal.” Another gubernatorial candidate, Scott Neely (R), writes of the 2020 election on his campaign website, “There is no deny­ing that compoun­ded errors and omis­sions by elec­tion offi­cials and care­less, shoddy elec­tion prac­tices and proced­ures have caused the prob­lem.” In a Facebook post, Neely wrote, “We allowed them to steal the election,” and encouraged people to watch the movie 2000 Mules, which offers a debunked argument that large numbers of people put false ballots in drop boxes.

The movie has also influenced the Arizona secretary of state race. State Rep. Shawnna Bolick, running in the GOP primary, presided over a presentation by the producers of 2000 Mules to the state senate. Bolick, who has claimed the election was “rigged,” said at the event, “We do know the elec­tion offi­cials colluded with the judi­ciary in 2020.” Mark Finchem (R) released a campaign ad claiming credit for helping make the Cyber Ninjas ballot review happen. On the other side, Adrian Fontes, vying for the Democratic nomination, tweeted in June, “The Big Lie is a crim­inal conspir­acy.” A Fontes campaign ad says, “We can’t let Trump loyal­ists steal our fair elec­tions.”

Mark Finchem campaign ad
Mark Finchem campaign ad

Florida

As of a June 2022 press confer­ence, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “still would­n’t say if he believes Pres­id­ent Joe Biden was ‘duly and legally elec­ted’ in 2020.” In May, DeSantis appointed State Rep. Cord Byrd (R) as Florida’s secret­ary of state. At a press confer­ence, Byrd “refused to answer whether the elec­tion was stolen.” Speak­ing about the nomin­a­tion and elec­tion secur­ity, DeSantis said, “We are not going to allow these external influ­ences to come in and to corrupt the oper­a­tions. And we’re certainly not going to allow polit­ical oper­at­ives to harvest all these votes, and then dump them some­where.” Democratic primary frontrunner Charlie Crist continues to push the Big Lie as a campaign issue. His campaign sent an email to support­ers saying that those who attacked the Capitol on Janu­ary 6 “were incited by false claims that the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was stolen, false claims that Gov. Ron DeSantis refuses to denounce. To this day, he still won’t admit the elec­tion was legit­im­ate.”

Michigan

The GOP primary for Michigan governor was shaken up in late May when five candidates, including the widely presumed front-runner, failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. In early June, one of the candidates, Ryan Kelley, was arrested for alleged involvement in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which may have boosted his standing in the polls. At a July debate, both Kelley and Garrett Soldano expli­citly said they thought the 2020 elec­tion was stolen, citing 2000 Mules as evidence.

In late July, secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo (R) said in an interview that she is running because “the people of Michigan are tired of an election system that is full of corruption and error and problems, and it doesn’t get resolved.”

New Hampshire

Incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu is a strong favorite to win the Republican primary, but his challengers have tried to make hay of false claims about the 2020 election. Thad Riley sent a campaign email to support­ers in June saying he “will work tire­lessly to once and for all shut down the fraud that was so rampant in 2020.” Karen Test­er­­­­­man shared an event on Face­book titled “Please Join Us Commit­tee on Voter Confid­ence Meet­ing… Special Present­a­tion of Irre­fut­able Evid­ence of Voter Fraud.”

Pennsylvania

Election denial was a highly visible issue in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania. The winner, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, has falsely claimed that there were more votes coun­­ted in the elec­­tion than there are registered voters. The Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, is running ads criticizing Mastriano for his stance on the 2020 election.

Josh Shapiro campaign ad
Josh Shapiro campaign ad

Wisconsin

Construc­­­tion exec­ut­ive Tim Michels (R) entered the Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial primary in late April. He reportedly has refused to “say whether he would certify the next presidential elec­­tion” or “whether Wiscon­­sin’s 2020 elec­­tion was prop­erly called.” In July, he said if elec­ted, he is not ruling out sign­ing legis­la­tion to over­turn the results of the 2020 election. One of his opponents, former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R), says in a campaign ad, “The liberal left is still trying to rig elec­tions and cancel out your vote.”

In the state’s secretary of state race, Jay Schroeder (R), a former town super­­­­visor of Menasha, Wiscon­­­­sin, posted in May on Facebook about his belief that the 2020 elec­tion was “rigged.” In June, Schroeder claimed the secretary of state has the power to stop Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes from being cast by refusing to sign a certificate required under state law. He said, “I would­n’t have signed it. Period. That means they would­n’t have been awar­ded.” The campaign Face­book page of another GOP contender, Justin Schmidtka, shared a post that discussed elim­in­at­ing alleged voter fraud and the movie 2000 Mules. Incumbent Secretary of State Doug La Follette (D), running for reelection, argued against proposals to give the secret­ary of state the power to certify elec­tions, saying that a future governor and secret­ary of state “could throw out the elec­tion and send their own people to Washing­ton.”

National Supporters of Election Denial

As the election season progresses, we see more donors giving large contributions —sometimes the maximum legal amount — across multiple states to election deniers running for governor or secretary of state. Several have ties to January 6 and other attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Some have also given to super PACs, allowing them to provide more support than contribution limits allow. But with dark money groups active in many contests, there is much we don’t know about who is supporting election deniers.

Patrick Byrne

Former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne has spent millions on “election integrity” efforts like the Cyber Ninjas review of the Maricopa County, Arizona, 2020 election results. He participated in a December 2020 Oval Office meeting discussing the possibility of the military seizing voting machines, which is under investigation by the January 6 committee. He donated directly to Marchant in Nevada, despite not having previously contributed to a secretary of state candidate in our sample going back through the 2010 cycle. The America Project, a nonprofit funded by Byrne that pushes election denial narratives, has donated over $155,000 to Conservatives for Election Integrity PAC, a group controlled by Marchant that boosts election deniers in several states. The group gave $100,000 to a Colorado super PAC called Citizens for Election Integrity that supported Tina Peters’s campaign for Colorado secretary of state.

Michael Rydin

Michael Rydin, the CEO of a Texas construction software company, has ties with election denial groups. The Conservative Partnership Institute, where one-time Trump campaign lawyer Cleta Mitchell runs an “Election Integrity Project” that pushes election denial narratives, calls Rydin a “partner since our founding” who “made a generous gift” to help buy a building. Rydin is also on the advisory council for Turning Point USA, an affiliate of one of the groups that organized and reportedly paid speaking fees for the January 6 rally. Rydin made contributions to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led a lawsuit that attempted to block other states’ Electoral College votes. Rydin donated $12,000 to Jody Hice’s secretary of state campaign. He has not given to any secretary of state candidate in our sample going back through the 2010 election. 

Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein

As documented in prior entries in this series, pack­aging supplies magnate Richard Uihlein has funded several groups tied to chal­len­ging the elec­tion and to the Janu­ary 6 insur­rec­tion. He is the main funder of Restoration PAC, a super PAC that provided funding to boost election denial candidates in the Georgia gubernatorial primary and local elections in Wisconsin. Uihlein donated to Hice in Georgia and Marchant in Nevada; he had not previously donated to secretary of state candidates in our sample going back through the 2010 cycle. He also gave more than $224,000 to the Texas gubernatorial campaign of Allen West, who called for election audits and jail time for the Harris County Clerk. Richard Uihlein’s wife, Elizabeth, gave $500,000 to a super PAC supporting Rebecca Kleefisch’s bid for Wisconsin governor, as well as $20,000 directly to her campaign. Together, the couple has donated $1 million to Florida’s DeSantis.

Trump-Affiliated Committees

Committees affiliated with former President Donald Trump have been active in election denialist campaigns, most notably boosting David Perdue’s unsuccessful primary challenge to incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R). Disclosures since the state’s May primary reveal a greater scale of spending than was publicly known before voters went to the polls. Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America, provided a total of $3.4 million to two pro-Perdue groups, Get Georgia Right PAC and Take Back Georgia. In addition, the “Trump-approved” super PAC Make America Great Again, Again spent $192,525 on ads supporting Perdue. As we previously reported, Save America has donated directly to election deniers running for governor or secretary of state in Arizona, Georgia, and Michigan.

Delaney Stekr provided substantial research for this report.