A prolific Democratic fundraiser is targeting secretary of state races. Will it work?

·9 min read

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger didn't flinch when he faced one of Donald Trump's most prominent election deniers on the debate stage this month.

The 66-year-old incumbent, whose family received death threats for resisting Trump's plea to "find" more votes, called out the former president's preferred candidate, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, for "outright lying" about the 2020 contest.

"I can walk up to Washington tomorrow and put my hand on a Bible and say, 'here are the facts' and I know that I don't have to worry about perjury," Raffensperger told Georgia voters during a May 2 primary debate.

A USA TODAY review of 2022 secretary of state campaigns around the U.S. found almost two dozen have at some point questioned the voting process during the last election, if not outright said the outcome was stolen. Four, including Hice, have been endorsed by Trump.

FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2020 file photo, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference in Atlanta. Georgia's most populous county, a Democratic stronghold that includes most of Atlanta, faces a high-stakes test in Tuesday’s Nov. 2, 2021 municipal elections, with some Republicans itching for a state takeover using a sweeping new law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File) ORG XMIT: NYMV302
FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2020 file photo, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference in Atlanta. Georgia's most populous county, a Democratic stronghold that includes most of Atlanta, faces a high-stakes test in Tuesday’s Nov. 2, 2021 municipal elections, with some Republicans itching for a state takeover using a sweeping new law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File) ORG XMIT: NYMV302

But now a new group led by a former candidate with a major fundraising network has emerged that shows Democrats are taking those important down ballot races more seriously.

Retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who raked in millions during the 2020 cycle, has launched the American SOS Project PAC, a political action committee that is looking to put significant money behind secretaries of state candidates — Democrats and Republicans — against "anti-democracy" contenders.

In the debut video, which was released in late April, McGrath plays the audio of Trump's infamous phone conversation berating Raffensperger over Georgia's vote totals.

She underscores how down ballot secretaries of state races have been overlooked in past, but that it would be perilous to do so in the midterm elections.

"Donald Trump thinks this is the weakest link in the chain because it's an office no one pays attention to," McGrath, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2020, said in the ad.

The group's arrival comes at a critical moment for these campaigns as Trump continues to embrace and influence secretary of state candidates in important states.

Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United/Let America Vote, a progressive voting rights group, said Tuesday there is a renewed focus on secretary of state and attorneys general races across the country, "because people really do understand what's at stake."

"Who wins these offices in 2022 is going to be who oversees our elections and who defends our elections and who goes to court to defend those elections in 2024," she said. "There could not be anything more important than that."

McGrath a fundraising powerhouse

Two years ago, McGrath took on then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and raised a record-breaking $94 million. She lost that race by roughly 20 percentage points, but raking in that sort of campaign cash has made her a potent figure in Democratic politics.

Kentucky Senate candidate, Amy McGrath, speaks during an early voting rally at Lynn Family Stadium on Tuesday. Oct. 27, 2020
Kentucky Senate candidate, Amy McGrath, speaks during an early voting rally at Lynn Family Stadium on Tuesday. Oct. 27, 2020

The only Democrat who raised more was South Carolina's Jamie Harrison, who also lost in 2020 but eventually became the party's national chairman.

University of Kentucky political science professor Steve Voss, who has followed McGrath's electoral career since she first ran for Congress in 2018, said despite past defeats the retired fighter pilot has built an impressive network of donors.

"She's really good at marketing, and really good at identifying a niche," he said. "And there's a lot of concern among Democrats and on the left in general about Republicans stealing elections, and while maybe the 2020 presidential election on balance was open and above board the 2024 election might not be."

Early campaign finance records show American SOS Project received its initial deposit of roughly $118,500 from Honor Bound PAC, another McGrath PAC that is an offshoot of her 2020 Senate campaign.

Honor Bound has more than $2 million in cash on hand, according to federal documents. Thus far, McGrath's new group has spent about $68,500, campaign records show.

Voss said while fear about GOP election law changes and Trump meddling with the next presidential is widespread among Democrats, the party and its interest groups, for the most part, have not figured out a good way to convert that anxiety into action.

"This effort by McGrath is the first really clear opportunity that people have to put their money toward combating Republican efforts to change election laws." Voss said.

"If she attracts the money, and she puts it into these down ballot statewide elections, McGrath, for sure could make a difference."

Other Democrats have taken notice of the American SOS Project's arrival on the campaign scene and say they welcome any additional resources that could be added to the mid-term election coffers.

The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, for instance, said it is seeing record breaking fundraising in the past year. It announced a haul of $4.5 million in 2021, over $2 million more than reported in 2020 and $3 million more than in the entire 2018 cycle.

DASS and its affiliated organizations are on track to meet or surpass their goal of raising $15 million for the 2022 cycle thanks to the support of union allies, corporate partners, and individual donors — many of whom are donating for the first time.

"What we think is on the line, and this is not hyperbole, is American democracy," Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who serves as the group's chair, told USA TODAY. "And we look forward to collaborating with anybody in this space... for us, the more collaboration the merrier."

Republican groups have also taken notice of McGrath's entrance and point out that her massive money haul hasn't resulted in success at the ballot box.

"The good news is that Amy McGrath is an expert at wasting her donors’ money, and this effort will suffer the same fate as her losing campaigns because Americans across the country will elect strong Republican secretaries of state who will make it easier to vote and harder to cheat," said Andrew Romeo, a Republican State Leadership Committee spokesman.

Trump grip on SOS races tightens

Trump and his influence on how Republicans talk about the 2020 election continue to matter.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a retired Army veteran, won the Republican nomination for governor. He has repeatedly supported Trump's falsehoods about the 2020 outcome in the past.

That has trickled down into down ballot contests in other states as well.

In Ohio, for instance, Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose said almost two years ago he had faith in Ohio's elections and that "other states do it very well also."

"If anybody believes that there's something out there, they need to show evidence," LaRose said in a November 2020 interview with The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. "Otherwise, making claims without any basis or evidence behind it is problematic."

But earlier this year, LaRose began to express support for Trump's lies about voter fraud after uncovering 42 Ohio ballots were illegally counted out of 5.9 million ballots cast in the 2020 presidential election.

"It’s an even bigger problem in other states where laws (and) leaders are weak," LaRose said in a Feb. 3 tweet. "President Trump is right to say voter fraud is a serious problem. More to come."

Three months later Trump endorsed LaRose in the primary against conservative activist John Adams, who had been an outspoken election denier saying there were "shenanigans" in the 2020 election that hadn't been resolved.

Trump's false claims of a stolen election and attempts to overturn the outcome have been discredited by multiple state audits and more than 60 failed lawsuits that were rejected by courts, including the Supreme Court.

Biden won the 2020 presidential race by roughly 7 million votes nationwide in the popular vote and 74 electoral votes. Yet conspiracy theories continue to doubt the legitimacy of Biden's win.

A recent NPR/Ipsos poll, for example, found that two-thirds of GOP voters across the country believe fraud played a role in Biden's victory.

Trump has also endorsed Arizona Republican state Rep. Mark Finchem, who attended the "Stop the Steal" rally before exploded into the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

When Trump knighted the 68-year-old Republican with his support for secretary of state last September he said: “Mark was willing to say what few others had the courage to say.”

Other GOP candidates for secretary of state who've been endorsed by or allied with Trump have also gained momentum in recent weeks, such as Kristina Karamo, of Michigan, and Jim Marchant, of Nevada, who have locked nods from their respective state parties this month.

Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor, said a reality in 2022 and for the foreseeable future will be how the fate of American democracy will rest in these once sleepy campaigns for a state's chief election officer.

"Because it's not just Donald Trump doing this stuff, though he certainly I think, is the biggest force behind the 'Big Lie,' and convincing people that election fraud is rampant," she said.

"But there are plenty of other people who have picked up on that theme, and utilized it to try to exploit voters."

One major test will be in Georgia's upcoming May 24 primary, where Raffensperger, the incumbent secretary of state who resisted Trump's demands to change the election outcome, is being challenged by Hice, who has repeatedly made false claims about the 2020 election.

Raffensperger defended his record and slammed the congressman for spreading lies about the last presidential contest during their primary debate earlier this month.

McQuade said it shouldn't be a surprise that Trump is supporting secretary of state candidates in battlegrounds such as Georgia, Michigan Nevada and Arizona.

"If those places get controlled by it not just a Republican, but a Republican who buys into the whole election denier belief, propaganda, they will have power to manipulate the outcome of all the elections within their state, including the presidential race," she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A top Dems fundraiser is sounding alarm on secretary of state races