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Financing of Races for Offices that Oversee Elections: November 2022

Election deniers on the November ballot in key states are losing the fundraising race, while their use of false election narratives online is increasing.

Published: November 1, 2022
Daniel Cullen/Spyros Arsenis/EyeEm/Alan Schein Photography/Getty
View the entire Tracking Races for Election Administration Positions series

In November, states are holding elections for offices like secret­ary of state that will play key roles in running the 2024 elec­tions. These races are attract­ing far more atten­tion than in recent memory. Part of the reason for their increas­ing visib­il­ity is the spread of the Big Lie that voter fraud “stole” the 2020 race from Donald Trump. In state after state, and especially battlegrounds likely to be pivotal in 2024, campaigns have focused 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. 

Here are our newest key findings:

  • Across six battleground states with secretary of state elections this year, fundraising by candidates has totaled $26.4 million, more than double the $11.8 million raised at this point in 2018. The large sums of money raised from out-of-state donors illustrate the nationalization of these elections, which are in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin.
  • Across the four races with an election denier on the general election ballot for secretary of state, election deniers are being outraised by a ratio of three to one. Election deniers are also losing the money race in most battleground gubernatorial elections, but they have dominated in some local races in Nevada.
  • Outside groups like super PACs are spending unprecedented amounts totaling several million dollars for secretary of state races in each of the key states. Virtually all this independent spending is supporting opponents of election denial.
  • Data from social media platforms shows how central false election narratives are to some secretary of state campaigns, and their use is increasing as Election Day nears. And in a sign that election deniers are speaking to different audiences than other candidates, their online ads are more likely to target older people.
  • Candidates are mixing election denial with racist tropes like the notion that people of color and immigrants are dangerous or that Jewish or Chinese people have outsize influence over our elections.

In battleground states, election deniers are on the general election ballot for governor in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as on the ballot for secretary of state in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nevada. There are also election denying candidates for local offices that play key roles in election administration in counties in Nevada and Texas.

Fundraising Analysis

Donations to secretary of state candidates in battleground states this election cycle far exceed those of past elections, showing the enormous increase in the prominence of these races and the attention partisans are paying to them. Across six states, candidates have collected $26.4 million. That’s more than double the $11.8 million amassed by this point in 2018 — which was itself double that of the $4.6 million raised in the 2014 cycle.

Election deniers in secretary of state races are behind

In every battleground state with an election denier on the November ballot for secretary of state, the election denier is losing the money race, with some being outraised by a factor of four to one. What’s more, opponents of election denial are benefiting from multimillion-dollar independent expenditures. This contrasts with the situation earlier this year, when election deniers were the leading fundraisers in multiple states, raising the possibility that election denial was a better fundraising strategy for the primary than for the general election.

In Arizona, where the secretary of state is an open seat, Adrian Fontes (D) has lagged election denier Mark Finchem (R) in fundraising all year, but he surged ahead after winning the primary in August. Fontes raised $1.7 million in the last quarter, almost three times what Finchem collected during the same three months.

A similar story is unfolding in Nevada, where Cisco Aguilar (D) raised $1.2 million in the last quarter, exceeding what he had raised in the entire cycle through June. Over the same period, election denier Jim Marchant (R) took in $90,000. Aguilar’s total revenue of $2.3 million is four times more than Marchant’s $526,401.

In Michigan and Minnesota, incumbents Jocelyn Benson (D) and Steve Simon (D) have for the whole cycle maintained commanding fundraising leads over their election denying opponents, Kristina Karamo (R) and Kim Crockett (R). As of September, Benson and Simon each a have four-to-one advantage over their opponent in campaign cash.

The financial edge by opponents of election denial is a pivot from earlier in the year (setting aside the consistent dominance of some incumbents). In the spring, election deniers were the top fundraisers in Georgia (Republican Jody Hice) and Arizona (Mark Finchem), and three of the four top fundraisers in Nevada were election deniers. Since then, Hice was eliminated in the primary, leaving no election denier on the ballot in Georgia. Finchem was vastly outraised in the third quarter. And prominent election denier Jim Marchant has seen donations drastically decline since he won the Nevada GOP primary.

It appears that election denial was a stronger asset to fundraising in the primary season than it has been in the general. Candidate strategy may have played a role in this. Our analysis of social media ad spending shows that many candidates’ ad buys peaked shortly before their state’s primary. Notable election deniers Finchem and Marchant stopped running online ads after winning their primaries, though Finchem started again in October.

Adding to the imbalance in direct contributions to candidates, super PACs and other outside groups are spending millions to stop the election deniers in all four states. Outside groups have announced enormous ad buys in support of Fontes in Arizona, including $5 million from iVote, and a $10 million plan from the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State (DASS) to benefit Fontes and Georgia secretary of state hopeful Bee Nguyen. DASS plans to buy $11 million worth of ads across Michigan, Minnesota, and Nevada, and iVote spent $4 million to support Benson and Simon. Several candidates will be outspent by supportive super PACs.

Notably, this outside group spending is completely lopsided. There are no significant independent expenditures supporting the election deniers in any of these contests.

Multimillion-dollar independent expenditures are common in competitive gubernatorial races, but they appear unprecedented for secretary of state contests. In states where past independent expenditure data is readily available, outside spending for a secretary of state candidate has previously not topped $1 million.

This heavy independent spending by national groups is one sign that secretary of state races have been nationalized. Another is the high rate of out-of-state contributions to candidates. Arizona’s Finchem has relied on out-of-state donors for the majority of his funds all cycle. And as donations to his opponent exploded late in the race, the share of Fontes’s money from other states shot up as well. Before July, Fontes had been taking in about $1 of every $5 from out of state, but almost half of the $1.7 million he raised in the third quarter came from outside Arizona. In Michigan, 41 percent of donations to both parties’ nominees have come from residents of other states.

Social media ad spending data indicates candidate strategies may have encouraged out-of-state giving. Analysts used the NYU Ad Observatory and the Meta Ad Library to examine ads on Facebook and Instagram for secretary of state nominees. In six battleground states, 8 of the 11 secretary of state nominees who bought Facebook or Instagram ads have targeted some ads to residents of other states. Election deniers are more likely to do so: on average, more than half of ads from election deniers target the entire nation, compared to only 13 percent for other candidates. Finchem aimed 97 percent of his ads to national audiences instead of just Arizona. 

Election deniers in gubernatorial races are behind in fundraising

The pattern of election deniers being outraised is largely the same in battleground gubernatorial races. This is the case in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, election deniers have been outraised 10-to-1. The one exception is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has endorsed election denial theories (although only for results in other states). Perhaps due to widespread expectations of a presidential run, DeSantis has raised more than any gubernatorial candidate ever: $180 million. Unlike secretary of state races, however, there is heavy spending on both sides from parties and super PACs in many of these gubernatorial contests.

Election deniers have mixed success in money races for local offices

We are tracking several local races where election deniers are on the November ballot for positions that play a role in election administration. Election deniers have raised more money in most of them.

In Nevada’s Nye County and Storey County, election deniers are running for county clerk, the office that administers county elections. Both are incumbents who were appointed this year to fill open seats after prior clerks left amid a wave of resignations driven by disinformation-fueled harassment and death threats. Another two election deniers are running for seats on the Washoe County Commission. The commission certifies county election results and appoints the registrar of voters, who runs elections in Washoe.

Through the summer, election deniers were ahead in fundraising in all four races. (The Storey County election is uncontested.) But that changed with a late surge for Washoe County’s Edwin Lyngar (D), who has expressly opposed election denial. Lyngar’s campaign for the District 5 seat on the county commission raised over $48,000 in the third quarter.

Election denial has also been an issue in the race for Travis County clerk in Texas, a position that administers the election on the county level. Although the publicly available campaign finance data may not be complete, it is clear that Dyana Limon-Mercado (D) has a commanding financial lead over election denier Susan Haynes (R). Limon-Mercado has reported raising more than $58,000, while Haynes has reported $2,234.

Election Denialism in 2022 Campaigns

New data from social media platforms shows that false narratives about the 2020 election are a key focus for secretary of state candidates in the six battleground states in our sample and across all states electing a secretary of state this year. Election deniers are pushing falsehoods in both organic posts and paid online ads, and the incidence of falsehoods is increasing as Election Day nears. We have also found that false election narratives frequently incorporate racist tropes.

Election denial is central to secretary of state candidates’ online campaigning

Using data from our Midterm Monitor, we found that significant portions of social media posts promote false election narratives: 19 percent on Instagram and Twitter and 31 percent on Facebook. This demonstrates the prevalence of election denialism by secretary of state candidates on social media.

Analysis of Twitter further demonstrates that candidates for secretary of state are increasingly promoting false narratives online as the election nears. The percentage of tweets by secretary of state candidates promoting a false narrative about the elections has grown significantly, rising from 7 percent between August 13 and 26, to 12 percent between August 27 and September 9, to nearly 22 percent between September 10 and 23.

Many false narratives focus on similar themes as those during the 2020 elections. Candidates are questioning the security of drop boxes and ballots and the integrity of certification processes, as well as raising other election fraud-related issues. One of the examples below shows false allegations made in an ad by Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo claiming that her opponent Jocelyn Benson mailed out illegal ballot applications. The other shows a TV ad by Arizona secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem showing the Soviet Union flag and two dead Latin American socialists, Hugo Chavez and Che Guevara, while claiming that his opponent Adrian Fontes “opened voting centers in favored areas.”

A Mark Finchem campaign ad.
A Mark Finchem campaign ad.
A Kristina Karamo campaign ad.
A Kristina Karamo campaign ad.

In key battleground states — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin — we found that all election denier secretary of state candidates promoted false narratives in at least one of their ads. Analysis of data from the NYU Ad Observatory and Meta Ad Library shows that all of these candidates included terms such as “fraud” or “stolen” in at least one of their ads. Other common terms included “Soros,” “communist,” “corrupt election,” and “integrity.”

In a sign that election deniers craft their messages for a different audience than other candidates, data from Facebook and Instagram shows that election deniers and Republicans were more likely to target older populations compared to Democrats, who were more likely to target younger and middle-aged adults. Half of election deniers and half of Republicans targeted adults over 55, while nearly half of Democrats and only 17 percent of Republicans targeted younger or middle-aged adults. By the same token, our analysis of false narratives on social media showed that secretary of state candidates were more likely to promote election denialism on Facebook — which is more likely to be used by older adults — than on Twitter and Instagram.

Election deniers are using racist tropes online

Some misinformation is also refracted through a racist lens. Using the Midterm Monitor, Brennan Center analysts flagged social media posts for 16 racist tropes related to election administration. The list was created by Brennan Center researchers in consultation with experts in the field. Our analysis has surfaced racism against Jewish, Chinese, and Black and brown people. In posts by secretary of state candidates throughout September, racist tropes were present in 4 percent of tweets and nearly 7 percent of Facebook posts. 

The racist narratives related to the election that target marginalized racial and ethnic groups imply that these communities are involved in manipulating the election and the country must be kept safe from them. Current narratives focus on fraud, crime, immigration, Chinese technology like TikTok, and spending by philanthropist George Soros as dog whistles to stoke fear and racial resentment. Conspiracy theories about the outsized influence of Jewish donors, such as George Soros, in deciding the election hark back to age-old antisemitic theories about Jews controlling the world. Anti-China rhetoric — which also negatively impacts other Asian American communities — has roots in the “yellow peril” tropes of the 19th century that have long been used to advance xenophobic policies. Allegations of election fraud that have disproportionately targeted cities with large Black populations (such as Detroit or Milwaukee) connect to long-standing racist tropes that communities of color are less trustworthy.