Politico

Trump backers unbowed in push to overtake state election offices


Nevada Republicans are about to decide whether the leader of a Trump-aligned group of election conspiracy theorists will be one step away from becoming the battleground state’s chief elections officer.

In the past two years, former state Assemblymember Jim Marchant lost a congressional race by 5 points — then sued unsuccessfully to overturn the defeat. He said he wouldn’t have certified President Joe Biden’s 2-point victory in Nevada had he been secretary of state. And he has pushed to do away with ballot-counting machines and instead count votes only by hand, which officials say would make tallying election results slower, more expensive and less accurate.

Marchant, one of several Republicans running in Tuesday’s primary for secretary of state, has also been a leader of the “America First Secretary of State Coalition” — a collection of like-minded candidates running in states across the country. Marchant arranged a “private strategy session” in Las Vegas in May 2021 to coordinate, according to the group’s website, and he regularly promotes the effort in far-right media outlets including Steve Bannon’s podcast.

The primary in Nevada is another reminder of the unusually high stakes in this year’s campaigns for election administration positions — longtime political backwaters that have gotten little attention in the past. But followers of former President Donald Trump — and his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him — have poured into secretary of state races in 2022, especially in the battleground states that will play a key role in deciding the next presidential contest.

Election integrity proponents were relieved when Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up against Trump’s demands to “find” more votes, survived a reelection challenge last month from a Trump-backed challenger.

But secretary of state contests still to come demonstrate that the Trump movement’s drive to control election offices is far from over.

In Pennsylvania, where the governor appoints the secretary of state, Trump-backed Doug Mastriano won the GOP primary last month. Trump has endorsed secretary of state contenders in other battlegrounds, Arizona and Michigan, as well. And a number of candidates like Marchant are not endorsed by Trump — but they have adopted and amplified Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.

“If we get just a few of the candidates that we have in our coalition, we save our country,” Marchant told Bannon on a podcast earlier this month. Marchant did not respond to an interview request.

Despite his alignment with Trump, who has not endorsed in the Nevada primary but commands broad support in the GOP, Marchant is hardly a lock for Republicans’ secretary of state nomination on Tuesday.

Public polling has been sparse in this race, but a survey from The Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights published on Friday had Marchant deadlocked with developer Jesse Haw at 21 percent each. A plurality of GOP voters, 36 percent, were unsure, with other candidates or “none of these” combining for another 22 percent.

Haw, who briefly served in the state Senate, has flooded the race with his own cash. As of March 31, the last campaign finance report due, he raised more than $660,000 — including more than $450,000 of his own money. That well outpaced the $43,000 that Marchant reported bringing in during the same time period.

“Between the two, it’s kind of a bit of a tossup,” said Mike Noble, the chief of research at OH Predictive Insights, noting the high number of undecided voters.

Haw has spent nearly $460,000 on television ads in the contest, according to data from the ad tracking firm AdImpact. Haw’s ads promote voter ID and say he will make “ballot harvesting” — the practice of a third party collecting and returning voters’ mail ballots — a felony. The spending is nearly double what Marchant and the PAC arm of his coalition — Conservatives for Election Integrity — have put on the airwaves.

And Haw has also gotten a major assist from a mysterious group called Americans for Secure Elections. That organization has pumped more than $1.7 million into TV ads either boosting Haw or attacking Marchant since the beginning of May, according to AdImpact.

Little is known about Americans for Secure Elections’ money or motives. In federal disclosures, the group reported receiving $1.15 million from a trio of dark money groups in March, but there is no indication where the funds came from originally. People listed as contacts for the group on state and federal campaign finance documents did not answer requests for comment.

Americans for Secure Elections had previously spent money in Ohio’s primary to boost Secretary of State Frank LaRose — who has defended the 2020 election as fair in the past and easily defeated a challenger who said the election was stolen. (LaRose, however, shifted how he talked about voter fraud outside of Ohio, as he got Trump’s endorsement for reelection.)

Haw, who also did not respond to an interview request, said in an email to The Nevada Independent that he too believed that the 2020 election “had a lot of shenanigans and potential fraud.” Nevertheless, Marchant has sought to cast himself as the true MAGA option in the Republican primary. “Looking pretty good in the primary, but I just need to keep working hard and keep up with my cabal Republican establishment opponent who is spending double what I am spending,” Marchant told Bannon recently.

Marchant, Haw and others are competing to succeed Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, who was term-limited. Cegavske defended the security of the 2020 election in Nevada, earning a censure from the state Republican Party.

Democrats will nominate Cisco Aguilar, an attorney and former staffer for the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is unopposed in his primary.

Heading into Marchant’s primary election on Tuesday, his America First Secretary of State Coalition has had a mixed record in primaries. The coalition’s biggest victory so far was in Pennsylvania, where Mastriano, a state senator, won the GOP gubernatorial nomination. If he wins the governorship, Mastriano would be able to appoint Pennsylvania’s secretary of state.

Mastriano is among the most prominent election deniers in the country, and has highlighted the role his pick to run Pennsylvania elections could play in the future.

“I get to appoint the secretary of state, who’s delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs and everything,” Mastriano said on a local station in March, according to audio clipped by a Democratic opposition research group. “I could decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen.”

Mastriano has also repeatedly said he has someone in mind for that role should he win in November, but he has not yet publicly named that person.

Mastriano’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

Other successes for the group include Kristina Karamo, the Trump-endorsed secretary candidate in Michigan who effectively won the GOP nomination there in April, and Audrey Trujillo, who ran unopposed in last week’s New Mexico Republican secretary of state primary.

But the coalition’s candidates have also lost in a handful of primaries so far — including in Nebraska, Idaho and, most notably, Georgia, where Raffensperger defeated the Trump-backed Rep. Jody Hice in a primary.

Later this year, another prominent coalition member facing a GOP primary for secretary of state is Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem.

The Trump-endorsed Finchem is running for the open secretary of state office there, after whipping up support by pushing the much-maligned election review in Maricopa County and urging the decertification of the 2020 election, among other conspiracy theories. Finchem has been much more successful at fundraising than Marchant.

Another prominent candidate is Mesa County, Colo., Clerk Tina Peters, who is looking to challenge Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold. Peters has been indicted for her role in allegedly facilitating unauthorized access to election equipment, and she has been barred from overseeing this year’s elections in her county.

While the statewide chief election officer positions have drawn the most headlines, Marchant and his alliance have also turned their attention to county-level administrators as well — races that garner even less attention than the under-the-radar secretary contests.

“I have been recruiting clerks and registrars out here also,” Marchant told Bannon on an April show. “And I’ve encouraged all of our candidates in our coalition to do the same thing.”

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