Dark money pouring into Secretary of State races featuring ‘big lie’ candidates

"Prom­in­ent elec­tion deniers have attrac­ted large dona­tions—often the legal maximum—from donors who are active in multiple states," warns a new report.

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SOURCECommon Dreams

A new analysis out Monday reveals that far-right dark money groups and donors are pouring millions into secretary of state races across the U.S. this election cycle, far outpacing such giving in previous years and a worrying sign that Trump’s 2020 “Big Lie” has grotesquely altered races for powerful state-level posts that could control the fate of the nation’s democratic future.

Compiled by Ian Vandewalker and Maya Kornberg for the Brennan Center for Justice, the new report found that across six battle­ground states with secret­ary of state elec­tions in 2022, “fundrais­ing by candid­ates contin­ues to outpace recent elec­tions.”

Overall and based on the most recent filings, the report found candidates in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin have raised $16.3 million thus far, more than double the amount at this time in 2018. According to the report:

Across all six states, 12 elec­tion denial candid­ates have together raised $7.3 million. That’s less than the $8.1 million collec­ted alto­gether by the 10 candid­ates who have taken a stance against elec­tion denial—most of which was raised by incum­bents, who have an inher­ent fundrais­ing advant­age. Without incum­bents, the six remain­ing oppon­ents of elec­tion denial have together raised $4 million.

While the overall amount of money raised by candidates who have pushed back against Trump’s “Big Lie” is higher, the trend of campaign giving—by regular in-state donors, super PACs, or shadowy individual donors from out of state—going to far-right Republicans promoting Trump’s 2020 conspiracy theory has skyrocketed.

“Prom­in­ent elec­tion deniers have attrac­ted large dona­tions—often the legal maximum—from donors who are active in multiple states,” report Vandewalker and Kornberg. “Several prom­in­ent donors have ties to the Janu­ary 6 insurrec­tion and other chal­lenges to the 2020 elec­tion result, includ­ing former Over­stock CEO Patrick Byrne, construc­tion soft­ware CEO Michael Rydin, and pack­ing supplies magnate Richard Uihlein. Most of the donors we iden­ti­fied had not given to secret­ary of state candid­ates before this elec­tion.”

Beyond donations straight to candidate campaigns, the Brennan Center found “at least $8.8 million in outside spend­ing from super PACs and dark money groups target­ing secret­ary of state races, with $5.6 million in Arizona alone.”

In Arizona, where the primary is being held Tuesday, state GOP lawmaker Mark Finchem—who was present in Washington, D.C. at the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 that preceded the insurrection at the Capitol Building—is considered the Republican frontrunner and has been receiving support from the former president’s wealthy allies. Trump has personally endorsed Finchem, who once belonged to the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers.

Speaking to local ABC 15 in Arizona, Brendan Glavin, a senior data analyst at the campaign watchdog group OpenSecrets.org, said Trump’s effort to discredit the election after losing in 2020 has had dramatic repercussions for secretary of state races.

“People have sort of awoken to the importance of this state-level position, so now, national interests are on both sides want to have control in this area,” Glavin said.

If Finchem was to secure the GOP nomination Tueday and then win against a Democratic rival in November, an individual who was present on Jan. 6 and who continues to deny that President Joe Biden won would be in charge of controlling Arizona’s election process in 2024. As the New York Times reports Monday:

Mr. Finchem is the candidate of a Trump-backed America First coalition of more than a dozen 2020 election deniers who have sought once-obscure secretary of state posts across the country. While most of them have been considered extremist long shots, a recent poll gave Mr. Finchem an edge in Arizona’s four-way Republican race, though a significant majority of voters are undecided. 

Mr. Finchem’s campaign pronouncements are testament to the evolution of the “Stop the Stea” movement: It is as much about influencing future elections as it is about what happened in 2020.

According to a review by the Times, much of the $1.2 million Finchem has raised for his campaign, a sizable sum compared to previous races, has come from outside Arizona.

“Seven of the eight donors who were listed as having donated the $5,300 maximum in his last two campaign filings were from elsewhere,” the newspaper reported. “Major donors include Brian T. Kennedy, a past president of the right-wing Claremont Institute, and Michael Marsicano, a former mayor of Hazleton, Pa., who recently lost a Republican congressional primary.”

While the Brennan Center analysis offers a detailed list of some individual givers who are maxing out to candidates like Finchem in state contests nationwide, the group warns “with dark money groups active in many contests, there is much we don’t know about who is support­ing elec­tion deniers.”

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