The 2020 presidential election was one of the most chaotic, controversial, and divisive campaigns in the history of American politics. Contested between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, the tone of the race was defined by once-in-a-lifetime occurrences like the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd, both of which generated social unrest. Throughout the campaign, civil discourse and interparty-cooperation were stymied by increasing polarization and misinformation.
By the time election day arrived on November 3rd, tensions in the United States were at fever pitch. The pundit world expected a comfortable Biden victory, but most Americans felt that the final result would be close. Few, however, foresaw the drawn-out repercussions of the widespread mail-in voting that had been necessitated by the pandemic. As a result of those absentee ballots, the nation did not immediately know who its next President would be.
Thanks in large part to the GOP-leaning election day vote, Trump amassed a visible lead over Biden in swing states across the country by the time that most Americans went to bed on November 3rd. Many uninformed observers found the initial returns indicative of a repeat of 2016, when Trump shocked the world by defeating Hillary Clinton.
Early the next morning, though, as more and more remaining votes were reported, the President’s advantage began to decline. Trump took full advantage of the confusing count, his sinking lead, and an elaborate social media presence to convince his conservative base that Democratic election officials were trying to prevent him from winning.
Confirmation of Biden’s electoral college victory later in the week merely fueled Trump’s accusations, elevating him to martyr status within his own circles. To many Republicans who had already lost confidence in the system, the supposed-conspiracy against the President simply confirmed all of the establishment ills he had claimed to have been fighting against during his term.
The election’s ensuing two months were overwhelmed with unsuccessful attempts by Trump’s closest allies to judicially overturn Biden’s victory. On January 6th, resentment against the status quo peaked when the President’s more fanatical supporters stormed the Capitol to prevent the Democratic electoral victory from being certified. At the time of the breach, certain Republican lawmakers had been in session objecting to supposed-irregularities in election returns from specific states.
Following the riot, the House impeached Trump for the second time in his political career on grounds that he had incited violence at the Capitol. While Trump was ultimately not convicted in the Senate, the potential criminal culpability of his acolytes is currently being examined by the January 6th Committee.
On January 20th, Biden was sworn into office as the 46th President of the United States. While his inauguration ushered in a sense of closure and stability for some Americans, it did little to resolve the underlying tensions that had caused the events at the Capitol in the first place.
Since his exit from the White House and coterminous suspension from Twitter, the former President and his entourage have continued to tout baseless claims about the validity of the last general election.
One of the organizations formed ahead of this November’s elections to promote Trump’s theories is the America First Secretary of State Coalition. Its purpose is to support Secretary of State candidates who adhere to the former President’s platform on election-related issues, including his allegations of widespread fraud in 2020.
Some of these candidates’ common goals include the elimination or modification of mail-in voting, the replacement of electronic machines with paper ballots, and audits of statewide results from the last presidential cycle.
Because Secretaries of State are responsible for overseeing elections in many parts of the U.S., the AFSSC’s Trump-backed candidates have drawn the concern of opposition watchdogs. Many Republicans fear that some of these nominees’ general election weaknesses could surrender key SoS offices to Democrats while simultaneously harming the party’s national brand.
Democrats and independents worry that the security of future elections could be put in doubt if the AFSSC’s swing state candidates win this year. Their argument is as follows: who is to say that one of these potential officials would uphold a statewide result that is out of step with the wishes of President Trump or his wing of the GOP?
The America First Secretary of State Coalition’s Mixed Primary Record
As of this writing, fourteen candidates have been directly associated with the AFSCC and its advocacy of President Trump’s “election integrity” program. Only six of these hopefuls have been nominated. Let’s examine the organization’s significant victories and losses.
The biggest success arguably occurred in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial primary, which Trump-backed state senator Doug Mastriano easily won against Lou Barletta and a series of other contenders. Mastriano had previously joined the ex-President in denying the result of the 2020 presidential election and now stands accused of being in the Capitol on January 6th.
Mastriano is discussed here because he would have the power to appoint a Secretary of the Commonwealth in his own image if he were to beat state Attorney General Josh Shapiro in November’s gubernatorial race.
Two other prominent AFSCC victories resulted not from primaries, but conventions. In certain states, like Utah, these gatherings have historically been more anti-establishment than actual Republican primary electorates. That proved to be the case in both Michigan and Indiana this cycle. In the Wolverine State, activist Kristina Karamo defeated three challengers. Just to the south in Hoosier country, appointed SoS Holli Sullivan lost the party vote to ex-Pence aide Diego Morales.
AFSCC endorsees also won contested primaries in two western swing states. GOP voters in Arizona nominated Mark Finchem, a state representative and Oath Keeper, who complements far-right primary victors Kari Lake (Gov) and Blake Masters (Sen) on that state’s fall ticket. In nearby Nevada, the new Republican candidate for SoS is former Assemblyman Jim Marchant, who also happens to be president of the AFSCC.
In terms of operational failures, none was more notable than Georgia’s Republican SoS primary. That race pitted Trump-endorsed 10th district Congressman Jody Hice against incumbent Brad Raffensperger. The enmity between the ex-President and the sitting row officer emerged shortly after the 2020 election, when Raffensperger refused Trump’s absurd request to find the necessary votes to overturn Biden’s victory in the Peach State. Despite being considered an underdog by pundits, Raffensperger mobilized voters of all stripes to beat Hice in the GOP primary without a runoff.
There were three other unsuccessful challenges to sitting Republican Secretaries of State, the closest of which occurred in Kansas. In that race, former Johnson County Commissioner Mike Brown came within ten points of beating incumbent Scott Schwab for renomination.
Another interesting contest took place in Nebraska, where incumbent Bob Evnen won his primary with just 44% of the vote against AFSCC candidate Robert Storer because right-wing opposition was split.
Organizational candidates in prominent open races also faltered. One particularly-interesting loss was that of Tina Peters in Colorado, the controversial Mesa County Clerk who narrowly finished second amid a three-person field.
Republican Pam Anderson, a former Jefferson County clerk who won the SoS primary, was one of multiple mainstream candidates for statewide office in the Centennial State who unexpectedly won nomination against right-wing opponents. Much like in Georgia, anti-establishment conservative support in Colorado was overestimated because of higher-than-expected participation in the GOP primary on behalf of Independents and Democrats.
General Election Implications
Because five of the AFSCC’s endorsed candidates are running in competitive states, the organization’s efforts could have serious November implications. Democrats’ greatest concerns revolve around the potential jeopardization of a secure 2024 presidential election at the hands of conspiracy-peddling officials in the country’s top swing states. But just how likely are Republicans to win these races in AZ, NV, MI, PA, and NM at the moment?
While they are all probably underdogs now, each candidate has a very real potential path to victory, especially if the environment improves for the GOP. In that respect, these races for SoS function similarly to simultaneous senatorial and gubernatorial contests occurring in most of these states.
Despite the fact that all of these Republican SoS candidates hold extreme stances that stand to degrade candidate quality, one must remember that the decline in split-ticket voting associated with increasing polarization has begun to affect down-ballot statewide contests.
While Trump’s election-related claims have brought more national attention to these row offices, they are unlikely to convince the uninformed, median conservative voter to punish right-wing candidates on his or her own.
Nevada and Arizona, for example, both harbor SoS contests that should be rated Tossup to match respective senatorial and gubernatorial elections within them. Republicans are currently trying to defend the former office and pick up the latter. Let’s look at the Grand Canyon state in more detail to better understand the dynamics of these two races.
In Arizona, the GOP nominee, Finchem, shares similar candidate quality problems with fellow candidates Lake and Masters, likely making him a slight underdog as of this writing. However, Split Ticket must reiterate that Republicans could still very well sweep all of the Arizona offices if everything goes their way in November and GOP voters turn out in unified force.
GOP hopes are less rosy, but still existent, in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Mexico. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, for instance, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Josh Shapiro and Gretchen Whitmer currently have visible advantages over their opponents Doug Mastriano and Tudor Dixon in terms of experience, campaign infrastructure, and general election viability.
Although these Democratic leads at the gubernatorial level are uncertain enough to change by November based on poll tightening and environmental shifts, it remains probable that the SoS results in both Pennsylvania and Michigan will closely follow their respective gubernatorial votes. Split Ticket expects a similar phenomenon in Arizona and Nevada.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org