This year, iVote will focus on electing Democrats as the chief election officials in seven states: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio. Only one of those states, New Mexico, has a Democratic secretary of state.
Two of the states, Arizona and Michigan, have not elected Democrats to the office since the 1990s; Colorado has not elected a Democratic secretary of state since John F. Kennedy was in the White House.
“This isn’t a coincidence,” said Kurz. “The Republican party targeted these offices two decades ago along with state legislatures, for redistricting purposes. They understood the power of the office and they knew their path to winning was shrinking. In these contested states — except Iowa, where it’s students they are after — there are great numbers of people of color. These are the people that Republican campaigns target to stop certain people from voting.”
Kurz’s iVote is not the first Democratic group designed to win secretaries of states’ offices. In the run-up to the 2006 elections, some wealthy donors funded a 527 group, the Secretary of State Project, to boost Democrats in races where their candidates had been struggling to raise money. iVote is structured as a 527 group, allowing it to raise unlimited money from donors.* Kurz would not say who donated to the new $5 million campaign; the Democratic super PAC American Bridge was its largest donor in the 2016 cycle.
“Liberal billionaires are more organized now than in their failed attempts of the past to spend millions of dollars to obstruct voters’ faith in the integrity of our election system,” said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “When Democrats campaign against Republicans who support election integrity, they lose, which is why Republicans are at all-time highs in state-level offices, including 30 Secretaries of State.”
In 2006, a good year for the party, the Secretary of State Project was a success; its biggest coups came in Ohio, where Democrats warned that voter suppression had been costing them support, and Minnesota, where two-term Secretary of State Mark Ritchie presided over a complicated recount that helped elect former senator Al Franken. The project folded after 2010, just as Republicans mounted comebacks across the South and Midwest.
“It was a tough climate during the 2010 cycle and beyond, also outside groups had a harder time raising money in the Obama area since they discouraged 527s and outside spending, at least initially,” said Laura Packard, a Democratic strategist who ran the project in the 2010 cycle. “People’s interests in the progressive movement can change over time. When you’re funded by major donors, they can shift their priorities.”
In 2012 and 2016, Democrats found themselves in 11th-hour lawsuits against Republican secretaries of state who tightened early voting periods, restricted the use of provisional ballots or purged voter rolls. In 2017, the party was thrown into a panic after Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who has crusaded against the specter of voter fraud, was tapped to run a federal electoral commission; it fell apart last year after states declined to supply it with voter data.
“They’ve systematically invested in candidate recruitment and support. They’ve coordinated across offices on policy through things like ALEC — see Kris Kobach,” said Kurz. “They’ve used the office to create a bench — see [Ohio’s Jon] Husted this year for example. And the results are stunning.”
This is not the first time iVote has tried to assist Democrats in downballot races. In 2014, the group spent money in Iowa to back Brad Anderson, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, who ran 20 points ahead of his party’s gubernatorial candidate and nearly won.
“They ran negative ads against Paul Pate, and they definitely helped,” said Anderson, referring to the Republican who won the election. “And the Republican I was running to replace was infamous, which helped with money. It was just a bad Democratic year.”
No Democrat, and no Republican, expects 2018 to create as many Republican openings as 2014. The issue now, said Kurz, was whether Democrats knew they could run real, well-funded campaigns.
“We would have won Brad Anderson’s race even in a Republican landslide if we had a small amount more money to talk to voters,” said Kurz. “Great candidates often do not even run for this office on the Democratic side because the idea of having to raise the money for a statewide election which costs money is daunting.”
*This story has been updated to correct an error about 527 groups; they disclose donors, but do not have caps on donations.