By Tal Kopan
Big money, top strategists and party insiders are diving into what could be the most hotly contested 2014 races — secretary of state. The sleepy administrative offices have suddenly captured the attention of some of the country’s major political players, who’ve formed national PACs and sketched out multimillion-dollar fundraising plans.
As the nation’s secretaries of state descend on Washington starting Wednesday for the National Association of Secretaries of State’s winter conference, this election year, Washington is coming to them.
The outsiders believe that winning these offices could give their side an edge in the 2016 presidential race, because secretaries of state run elections and can shape voter ID rules and other details. When margins are tight, those small differences can mean the difference between a big win — and a loss.
So while some candidates and state parties say they fear the new outside money and players are going to turn these local races into expensive — and nasty — displays, the outsiders say that’s a chance worth taking when the stakes are as high as the White House.
“I’m certainly not surprised. We’ve seen an increased attention over the last number of years because if you can influence how the votes are cast you could certainly influence the results thereof,” said Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call. “And the truth is, here in Colorado and throughout the nation, with the changes enacted to our elections laws, who the secretary of state is really matters.”
While the role of the secretary of state varies from state to state, the officials are primarily tasked with administering elections in their state and in some cases working with local business, including registering companies and trademarks, and managing notaries public.
The secretary of state serves as the chief election officer in 39 states, oversees the canvassing of election results in 38, and in 24 states receives initiatives and referendum petitions and collects candidate filings and campaign finance disclosure reports, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Responsibilities can include everything from shaping and implementing voter registration rules, maintaining state voter rolls, certifying ballot initiative language and certifying elections.
Since December, three PACs have launched focused entirely on secretary of state races. The conservative super PAC SOS for SoS was founded by Gregg Phillips, a veteran of the pro-Gingrich PAC Winning Our Future. It hopes to spend $5 million to $10 million in nine key states in 2014: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio.
Two PACs have formed on the left: Super PAC SoS for Democracy was created by AFL-CIO and AFSCME veteran strategists Steve Rosenthal and Larry Scanlon, and PAC iVote boasts a board full of Obama and Clinton alums, including Jeremy Bird, Pete Giangreco and Doug Sosnik. SoS for Democracy is working on identifying the five to six states it wants to focus on, possibly including Arizona, New Mexico, California, Ohio and Michigan, while iVote will be active in Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada and plans to spend in the seven figures, depending on fundraising. Efforts in the states will range among the groups from placing ads, to grass-roots outreach efforts, to research, to digital strategy.
The Republican Secretaries of State Committee, a division of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said it aims to maintain the majority of secretary of state seats it holds right now, with 28 out of 50 state offices occupied by Republicans. According to a strategy memo from the RSSC released to POLITICO on Wednesday, with 18 GOP-held seats up for election in 2014, the group plans to support incumbents in Michigan, Ohio and New Mexico, and to target open races in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Iowa.
It’s no accident that many of the states they are targeting are battleground states: The groups are looking to make a difference in contentious races in states that will be important in an open 2016 presidential election.
And while a handful of groups, now mostly defunct, have played a role in secretary of state races in the past decade with some success, the new PACs represent a suddenly crowded space in what all the groups agree was an underserved area before.
“It is critically important that we understand who these folks are that are conducting and certifying our elections, what they believe in and how they plan to execute their offices in their states,” Phillips said. “I read that the average secretary of state race costs $500,000, which is pretty amazing in this day and age. The import of all of this, and $500,000 can make a difference.”
In perhaps the best-known example of a secretary of state action, in 2000 then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who had been the state co-chairwoman of George W. Bush’s campaign, certified the election results that put Bush up in the state by a few hundred votes, the deciding factor that was later upheld by the Supreme Court.
Since then, as contentious state-level battles over voter ID, early voting and elections laws have sprung up, more attention has turned to the role of secretaries of state, and Democrats and Republicans are looking to put up the money to ensure that their candidate wins that seat the next time.
Candidates say a little bit of money can in fact go a long way in some of the races. Georgia Secretary of State and Chairman of the RSCC Brian Kemp says in his experience with his own campaigns and the work of the RSSC, an expenditure well within the reach of these groups could decide an election.
“These are down-ballot races, and a little bit of money can have a big effect in them,” Kemp said. “In states like Iowa, if you can inject $50,000-$100,000 into a race, it can make a big difference the last week of the election.”
The reactions to the increased attention vary from state to state, with most candidates saying they are focused on their own campaigns.