As Democrats across the country warn about the delicate
state of American democracy and the importance of voting for candidates who
will protect voting rights, the chair of the umbrella committee for Democratic
secretaries of state has found herself in the most important and serious campaign
of her career.
The battlefield is Colorado, and the incumbent is Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the first Democrat to hold the position in almost 60 years. Griswold’s is one of the more obscure types of statewide election across the country that can have important implications up and down the ballot. The Colorado secretary of state oversees elections and the state’s voter registration file, and presides over campaign finance laws, among other duties.
Joe Biden beat Donald Trump handily in Colorado in 2020, by more than 10 points. But Biden’s popularity has faded in the state. And one of the GOP candidates is a devout Trumpist who is now under criminal investigation for allegedly tampering with election equipment. She was arrested in February.
Colorado as a whole is as Democratic as can be right now. It has a Democrat in the governor’s mansion who is not the most endangered Democratic governor in the country, as well as two Democratic senators. Democrats also control the state legislature.
But blanket Democratic control of the state was not always the case. Until 2021, Colorado had one Republican senator and one Democratic one. And in November, a Rocky Mountaineer poll conducted by the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, found the approval ratings for Governor Jared Polis, Senator Michael Bennet, and President Biden all taking a dip—with Biden’s being the most substantial.
“I think it’s a really challenging year, and you look at Biden approval numbers in the state, and you look at Bennet approval numbers, and if those aren’t above 50 then no one else is,” said Democratic strategist Jenn Ridder. Ridder added that if their approval numbers are low, Democratic candidates for other offices won’t ride their coattails.
Republicans can win in Colorado, and some of the most extreme members of the GOP came out of this state—Representative Laura Boebert and former Representative Tom Tancredo are two good examples. Plus, the 2022 midterms are shaping up to be a windfall for Republican political candidates across the board.
In the case of the secretary of state race, the Republican field to face Griswold is divided. It includes former County Clerk Pam Anderson, who has the markings of the establishment candidate in the race; former Colorado Lending Source executive director Mike O’Donnell; and Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, who has worked to align herself with the Trumpiest wing of the Republican Party. She announced her candidacy on Steve Bannon’s podcast.
There’s been little polling of either the primary or general election, but the general expectation is that they will be more contentious than down-ticket races usually are.
“I would give every Democrat up and down the ticket an advantage right now, but it will be contested,” said Colorado-based Democratic strategist Craig Hughes, who is consulting for Griswold.
Traditionally, secretary of state races, alongside attorney general races, have retained a level of decorum that has dissolved from the rest of statewide and national politics. In the last few years, the détente between attorney general candidates and incumbents ended, and more money and consultants have poured into those races. Similarly, Democrats have increased their focus on down-ticket elections as both a bench builder and an acknowledgment that there is an important connection between winning down-ticket races and winning major federal and national elections. Gubernatorial elections are getting a new focus within the party. A new super PAC, Bridge to Democracy, was recently created to focus on local and statewide offices that deal with administering elections.
The biggest shift related to secretaries of state, though, has come in the last two or three years, when a previously unknown figure, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, became one of the central characters in the ongoing saga of lawmakers defying Donald Trump’s attempts to circumvent election laws. Raffensperger now has a primary challenger backed by Trump, and the outcome of his reelection campaign will be seen as an indicator of Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party.
The Colorado secretary of state race is particularly important for Democrats. Griswold is chair of the umbrella group the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, or DASS. She’s been pegged as a rising star within the party, and there’s generally an added level of importance when the chair of any kind of committee (i.e., the Senate campaign arm, the Congress campaign arm, or the analogous organization for governors) is up for reelection.
Almost as an ironclad campaign rule, Democrats lag behind Republicans in fundraising for down-ticket races. The structure for Republicans on that side differs, as well. The Republican State Leadership Committee is the organization that covers secretaries of state as well as state legislators for the GOP. Democrats have DASS and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. There are also respective organizations for Republican and Democratic attorneys general, the Republican one (Republican Attorneys General Association) having experienced a wave of upheaval in connection to the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. And there have been Democratic attempts to start other niche groups for other offices, such as state treasurer.
But this cycle Democrats say that underdog status is changing. Fundraising has been up for Griswold. The focus across the party on voting rights has increased awareness among activists about the importance of secretaries of state, as well. Griswold noted to me, “We’ve seen increases in fundraising. As of last year I had already raised my entire 2018 budget.”
Still, Democrats maintain this is a serious contest—serious enough that Griswold’s general election challenger could be the deciding factor in the race. When I interviewed Griswold, she maintained that all of the Republican primary candidates were untenable but directed an outsize amount of criticism toward Peters.
“The stakes are as high as they ever get. We have to win these seats. In Colorado, Tina Peters compromised voting equipment,” Griswold said. “She’s under criminal investigation. She’s embracing extremism and was clapping onstage as election deniers called for me to be hanged. She forgot to count about 600 votes in 2019. She’s unfit and a risk to Colorado’s democracy, so I do think the risks are really, really high.”
It’s understandable why Griswold would focus on Peters in particular. A month ago, Peters was arrested for resisting a search warrant. She also has been facing numerous investigations related to tampering with election equipment and a security breach to election equipment in 2021. Though there’s been very little polling of the race, both Republicans and Democrats maintain that none of the three candidates is either a lock for the nomination or an impossibility.
“This is one of those years where Republicans will succeed or fail based on the quality of their nominees,” said Republican strategist Josh Penry, who is advising Anderson.
In a sign of the seriousness of the race, Democrats seem to have quietly set up an independent expenditure group to support Griswold. The group, called the Defend Democracy Fund, describes itself in its IRS filings as set up to “support Democratic candidates of the office of Colorado Secretary of State.” The filing did not disclose any other useful details, but Democratic sources noted that the custodian of records, Ashley Stevens, is a Colorado Democratic operative who usually works on the independent expenditure side of campaigns.
The larger theme coming out of this race is that secretary of state elections, once nonpartisan in all but name, are changing.
“I think these races are becoming more prominent for three main reasons. Number one, Russia started to attack elections and attack American voters with disinformation in 2016. They have continued to ramp up,” Griswold said. “Number two, when the pandemic hit, secretaries of state, predominately Democratic secretaries of state, were there to make sure that in the face of really trying circumstances Americans could choose their elected officials. We had record turnout among Democrats and Republicans in the middle of the pandemic. But number three, we stood up to a coup; I stood up to a coup in 2020, and that coup has not stopped. They failed in achieving their efforts in 2020, but the same attacks, the same setting the playing field for extreme candidates to take these offices without necessarily winning, has continued. That makes our roles all the more important. It’s also why we don’t have Big Lie secretaries of state overseeing states across the nation.”
Secretary of state races are not quite at the point of Senate races or governor races, but the partisanship of these races, as well as the attention they are getting, is dramatically intensifying. That may be the saving grace for Griswold and other Democrats in the secretary of state arena this cycle. But more political rancor will surely attract more extremist candidates into the fold.