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Money flowing to some election deniers sets off scramble in secretary of state races


By Fredreka Schouten

Republican secretary of state candidates who have denied the 2020 election results have raised more than $12 million in this election cycle — some with financial assistance from deep-pocketed GOP donors, according to a new analysis from a nonprofit watchdog group shared first with CNN.

And in two races viewed as competitive by political handicappers — in Indiana and the key presidential battleground of Arizona — the election skeptics who are the Republican nominees for secretary of state have outraised their Democratic rivals, according to the analysis by the nonpartisan group Issue One.

“This is absolutely a wake-up call,” Nick Penniman, Issue One’s CEO, said of the financial support for some Republicans who have raised doubts about the 2020 election results. “For a long time, the political bet-makers wrote off some of these extreme candidates and assumed that they couldn’t win, that they weren’t viable.”

“But I think they have proven that they are viable because they have been able to tap into veins of money that are willing to support them,” he added.

In one sign of the Democratic concern about Arizona, officials with one liberal outside group, iVote, tell CNN that they plan to invest a total of $5 million to help boost the Democratic nominee, former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes. That spending has not been previously reported.

The once low-key secretary of state races have garnered more attention than ever before in the aftermath of the 2020 election, which saw former President Donald Trump attempt to pressure public officials to set aside the will of voters after he lost the presidency. The people who win these jobs in November will play key roles in overseeing and certifying the results of the 2024 election — which could feature a rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden.

An analysis by CNN’s Daniel Dale showed that in at least 11 states — out of 27 with secretary of state contests on the ballot this year — the Republican nominee for election chief is someone who has questioned, rejected or sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Issue One’s researchers examined roughly four dozen races this year that featured candidates who have questioned the 2020 results and explored in more detail those who have secured their party’s nomination.

Among the races highlighted in the report: Arizona, where GOP state Rep. Mark Finchem has raised more than $1.2 million in his bid to become the top election official — far surpassing the nearly $700,000 collected by Fontes, the Democratic nominee, state campaign records show.

Finchem, who was endorsed by Trump in 2021, has called for the decertification of the 2020 election in three Arizona counties, although there is no evidence of widespread fraud and legal experts say there is no mechanism to set aside the results of that election. He also co-sponsored a bill that would have empowered state legislators to reject election results.

In Arizona, iVote is teaming up with the state’s Democratic Party to make what its president, Ellen Kurz, called an unprecedented $5 million investment in the race there to boost Fontes.

“With a candidate who has a proven history of rejecting results in a critical swing state, who wins this seat in 2022 will determine whether we have a constitutional crisis or not in 2024,” Kurz said in a statement.

Finchem did not respond to CNN interview requests.

Funders examined

The Issue One report zeroed in on who has helped fund the candidates who have challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Donors include Trump’s Save America leadership PAC; Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of who is a prominent funder of efforts to challenge the 2020 election results, and Lewis Topper, a Florida-based fast-food entrepreneur.

Byrne has been at the forefront of efforts to challenge the legitimacy of the last presidential election. A group he helped found, The America Project, helped underwrite a widely derided review of ballots cast in Maricopa County, Arizona, that in the end only confirmed Biden’s victory there. And the America Project is among the donors to a political action committee, Conservatives for Election Integrity, overseen by Jim Marchant, the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state, who has said he would not have certified Biden’s victory there and has led a campaign to encourage counties to ditch voting machines and instead hand count ballots.

Individually, the Issue One report found — and state records show — that Byrne has contributed to Marchant; Kristina Karamo, the GOP nominee for Michigan secretary of state, and to Tina Peters, the Mesa County, Colorado, clerk and recorder, who lost the GOP nomination for Colorado secretary of state this year.

(A county grand jury indicted Peters earlier this year following an election breach investigation by local authorities. Last month, she pleaded not guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges.)

In a text message exchange with CNN on Wednesday, Byrne said he did not recall donations directly to those candidates, but he described an election system “riddled with security failures” and said he’s committed to “stimulating” citizen efforts “to get involved with election integrity this cycle.”

That includes, he said, One More Mission — an initiative to recruit veterans and first responders to become poll workers.

Issue One’s analysis also found that Topper, a major Republican donor, contributed to the campaigns of five secretary of state candidates it examined: Finchem, Peters, Karamo, Marchant and GOP Rep. Jody Hice, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination this year in Georgia. (Hice had been among the congressional Republicans who objected to the 2020 election results on January 6, 2021.)

Topper declined to comment on his political contributions.

Democratic activity

Issue One’s Penniman said the money to influence these races is unprecedented.

“These are races that typically used to cost less than $100,000. They were the most uninteresting, boring things on the ballot,” he said. “Now, they are front and center.”

In other key contests examined by the group — including Michigan and Minnesota, where Democrats are up for reelection — those incumbents have far outraised their Republican rivals. Meanwhile, outside Democratic groups are collecting records sums, even as they urge donors to contribute more in the home stretch to Election Day.

The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State has a $25 million budget for this cycle, up from about $1.5 million in 2018, when the organization had no paid, full-time staff, said Kim Rogers, the group’s executive director.

The group is primarily focused on races in Nevada, Michigan, Georgia, Minnesota and Arizona, where Rogers said the organization will help underwrite ads with the state party to support Fontes. In addition, she said, the group is working to protect Democratic incumbents in Colorado, Washington state and New Mexico.

“2020 was a huge seismic shift for democracy, and secretaries of state are on the front lines,” Rogers said. “Many donors are stepping up at levels that have not happened before,” she said. “And we still need more because we’ve never been in this situation before.”

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