WASHINGTON (AP) — Campaigns for secretary of state, often relegated to the back burner of American politics, are drawing increasing attention from Democratic and Republican groups that hope to influence how elections are overseen in a number of presidential battleground states.
Democratic strategists who have advised the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were launching a political action committee called iVote on Thursday, vowing to back Democrats running for secretary of state in Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio.
A Republican super PAC called SOS for SOS has outlined plans to spend up to $10 million this year to bolster GOP secretary of state campaigns in at least eight states.
"There are well-funded, well-organized forces committed to denying Americans their right to vote to advance their own interests," said Jeremy Bird, a founder of iVote and a former Obama campaign national field director. He said the group would aim "to go on the offense against these efforts."
Republicans currently control 28 of the 50 state elections offices, some of which are part of lieutenant governors' offices, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. Among the states that elect a top elections official, Republicans control 23 of the 39 offices.
Obama's re-election campaign was largely successful in a number of legal challenges to Republican efforts to curtail early and absentee voting, alter voter registration practices and implement photo identification requirements. Yet heading into the 2014 midterm elections, both parties are trying to play a more direct role in electing officials who will interpret voting laws and oversee elections even before a dispute reaches a courtroom.
Gregg Phillips, who recently founded the conservative SOS for SOS, said his organization planned to spend $5 million to $10 million on secretary of state campaigns in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio. The group backs candidates who support photo ID requirements, proof-of-citizenship requirements and policies to prevent voter fraud.
"We have no agenda other than ensuring one person, one vote," Phillips said. He said the group intends to support "people with a backbone, someone who is able to stand up to the name-calling."
Republicans have made a concerted effort to win down-ballot elections across the country, helped by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which raised $39 million in 2011-12 for statewide campaigns to elect lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state and state legislators.
In many states, the secretary of state's office typically oversees election laws, ballot measures and the recount process, a role that received widespread attention during the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election. Yet in the states where the job is an elected position, the campaigns tend to be sleepy affairs overshadowed by more prominent races for governor and attorney general.
That is beginning to change.
Last year, a group of Democrats formed SOS for Democracy, which aims to support secretary of state candidates in about six or seven states. A kickoff lunch included labor unions, environmental groups and EMILY's List, a Democratic group that supports female candidates who back abortion rights.
Republicans intend to defend Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has drawn the ire of Democrats for promoting his state's proof-of-citizenship law as an anti-fraud measure to keep non-citizens from voting.
In Iowa, GOP incumbent Matt Schultz is seeking the congressional seat of retiring Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, creating an opportunity for Democrats, who are backing Brad Anderson, Obama's state director in 2012. Republican Paul Pate, who served as Iowa's elections chief during the 1990s, is trying to recapture his old office.
And in Ohio, Democrats hope to oust Republican incumbent Jon Husted, the former speaker of the Ohio House, who has pushed for online voter registration.
Both parties note that unlike costly Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, many campaigns for secretary of state can cost $500,000 or less to run. That means the influx of $200,000 or more of television and radio ads could play a major role in convincing voters and influencing the outcome.
"That injection of money or advertising late in the race can make a difference," said Republican Brian Kemp, Georgia's secretary of state. "Because it is a race that a lot of people don't pay attention to and it may not be on their radar until a week before the election."