Amid voter ID battle, Democrats launch PAC for secretary of state races

December 12, 2013

Democrats, who are locked in a battle against voter ID and a series of Republican election law changes, are launching a new effort to win secretary of state races in 2014.

Leading that effort will be a new political action committee devoted to these races, called SoS (Secretary of State) for Democracy. The PAC is the brainchild of longtime Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal and former AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon.

Secretaries of state generally have control over the implementation of election laws. They can also approve the language on ballot measures, for example, and oversee recount processes. Despite these powers, secretary of state races are genuinely not very expensive, meaning a well-funded outside group could have significant impact for far less money than is required in a governor's race, for example.

Republicans currently hold 29 of the 50 secretary of state offices, including 23 of the 39 that are chosen by voters, according to data from the Republican State Leadership Committee. (Three secretaries of state are chosen by state legislatures, and eight more are appointed. Also, a few elected lieutenant governors serve as secretaries of state.)

Rosenthal says Democrats need to start emphasizing these races as much as Republicans have in recent years.

“They tend to be an afterthought, but people have a lot at stake in terms of ballot access, ballot issues, and a range of issues that secretaries of state are deciding," Rosenthal said.

The PAC will focus its efforts on five or six key secretary of state races in 2014 -- potentially in states like Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona -- in an effort to regain some ground lost to Republicans in recent years.

The PAC will do both independent expenditures -- paid media -- and assemble a team of consultants in each state that is chosen.

Among the potential backers of the new PAC are labor groups like SEIU and AFSCME, as well as the Democratic women's group Emily's List. (Secretary of state is one of the most popular elective offices for women.)

In addition to the policy implications, winning secretary of state races can have future political implications; secretary of state is a popular political stepping stone to higher office.

This year alone, current and former secretaries of state are running in top Senate races in Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan and West Virginia. They are also running for governor of Arizona and Colorado.

Update 11:09 a.m. Friday: Rick Hasen notes that this group isn't the first of its kind. It's precursor, the Secretary of State Project, disappeared a few years ago.


Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Anne Bartlett · December 12, 2013