COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose was clear in the months after the 2020 presidential election.
"Elections are run better and more honestly than really I think they ever have been,” he said in response to conspiracy theories being floated about the election. Months later, he said in an interview what has proved true in state after state - that voter fraud is rare.
Fast forward to 2022, when Republican secretaries of state face a delicate test with voters: Touting their work running clean elections while somehow not alienating GOP voters who believe the false claims of fraud fueled by former President Donald Trump and his allies.
LaRose has shifted his tone on Twitter, recently saying the “mainstream media is trying to minimize voter fraud to suit their narrative” and “President Donald Trump is right to say that voter fraud is a serious problem.”
That tweet came a day after LaRose learned he had drawn not one but two primary challengers, both of whom have said they believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
All but one of the eight incumbent Republican secretaries of state seeking to continue as their state's elections chief have drawn at least one GOP challenger who either outright denies Democrat Joe Biden won the presidency or makes unsubstantiated claims that elections are not secure.
That raises the prospect that the nation’s voting process will become further politicized if candidates who embrace conspiracy theories or promote without evidence the false narrative of widespread fraud win races for offices such as secretary of state, which play critical roles in managing elections and are intended to be neutral.
Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state from Kentucky who has been outspoken against the efforts to delegitimize the 2020 presidential results, said some of the incumbent GOP secretaries need room to maneuver politically so they can defeat opponents within their own party who might seek to undermine fair elections if they win.
“These are guardians of democracy," he said. "Their opponents are people who don’t show respect for the law or evidence or the vote-counting process. They are willing to ignore counts, willing to ignore safeguards we have in the system. In some cases, they are just making stuff up.”
Trump’s false claims have led to restrictive voting laws in Republican-controlled states, partisan election reviews, voting system security breaches and now a wave of candidates seeking to take over election administration at the state and local levels.
In addition to Ohio, Republican secretaries of state in Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota are seeking to remain in office. Only Iowa’s Paul Pate is running unopposed.
In Alabama, Idaho, Nevada and North Dakota, the GOP incumbents have opted against seeking reelection or are term-limited, leaving open contests. Wyoming Secretary of State Edward Buchanan has yet to announce his plans.
Democratic secretaries are running to keep their seats in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Washington. So far, only one has drawn a Democratic challenger.
The job of secretary of state has tended to attract candidates focused more on process than politics. The races are typically low-key contests overshadowed by campaigns for governor and state attorney general.
That changed after Trump disputed his loss and decided to target election officials in political battleground states, sometimes pressuring them to reverse his loss. In one instance, Trump made a phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which he asked Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win.
Raffensperger didn’t cede to Trump’s demands and has defended Georgia’s election in a re-election bid this year where he faces three primary challengers. He has sought to counter them by touting his conservative credentials, downplaying differences with Trump and wooing primary voters with a call to ban non-citizen voting. He also has pointed to his efforts to include a photo ID requirement for mail ballots as part of a sweeping election bill passed by lawmakers last year.
At a recent rally in Georgia, Trump blasted Raffensperger as a “lousy secretary of state.” In an interview, Raffensperger said he has been working to counter the continuing misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
“We checked every allegation; I made sure we did,” Raffensperger said. “I stand on the truth, and no one has been stronger on election integrity than me.”
Trump has endorsed one of Raffensperger's opponents, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice. Hice objected to Georgia’s electoral votes being counted for Biden, despite a lack of any evidence of widespread fraud or tampering. Georgia’s 5 million votes cast for president were counted three times, including once by hand.
Hice has been leading all candidates in fundraising and is part of a new group called the “America First Secretary of State Coalition,” organized by Jim Marchant, a former state lawmaker who is running for the open secretary of state seat in Nevada.
The group, which also includes Trump-endorsed candidates in Arizona and Michigan, has among other things advocated for limits on mail voting.
Trump won Kansas with 56% of the vote, and the state had no significant problems with its 2020 elections. Even so, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab is facing a Republican primary opponent.
Schwab has pushed back on conspiracy theories and potentially angered many GOP voters in doing so. After a recent hearing in which lawmakers heard from Trump allies making false claims about the 2020 election, he wrote the committee to say the testimony “sought to undermine confidence in our county election officers, election results, and the longstanding systems used to securely conduct elections in Kansas.”
Despite any evidence of problems with Kansas' elections, Schwab's Republican opponent, Mike Brown, has called for tougher rules on drop boxes and mail ballots, supports partisan ballot reviews and wants ballots printed on special paper. He said Schwab hasn’t been vigilant when it comes to protecting elections.
Schwab downplayed the criticism and said he has an open line to Trump.
“If he’s got concerns, you know, the president’s team can call our office and say, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you about the 2020 election,’ but they don’t because they know there’s no concerns,” Schwab said.
He and some other incumbents have tried a delicate balance in messaging as they seek to retain their seats — touting election performance in their own state while hinting vaguely at election problems elsewhere.
In South Dakota, Secretary of State Steve Barnett defended the work of his office and blamed “disinformation, misinformation, mal-information” for lowering voter confidence nationwide.
“I can only speak to what went on in South Dakota,” he said. “I can’t speak to what happened in these other states.”
Barnett's challenger, Monae Johnson, said she was “answering the call of concerned citizens” to run and criticized Barnett for sending absentee ballot applications during the pandemic and supporting online voter registration.
In Ohio, LaRose’s pro-Trump statements haven't stopped his GOP challenger, former state lawmaker John Adams, from claiming that he hasn’t taken election integrity seriously; a second primary challenger was disqualified for paperwork errors.
Adams told a group of Republicans gathered recently at a sports bar in suburban Columbus that “there’s no way that Trump lost,” likening LaRose to Georgia Democrat Stacy Abrams for his positions in favor of ballot access. LaRose says Adams is basing his campaign on “conspiracy theories and nonsense,” but brushed aside questions about whether his own rhetoric had shifted.
All this has left many GOP primary voters conflicted. Lyle Adcock, 72, a semi-retired computer sales representative who listened to Adams at the sports bar, said he has always trusted Ohio elections but now isn't sure what to think.
“It’s not like I feel my vote doesn’t count, but I wonder if there is any of this fraud,” he said.
Asked who he was supporting in the secretary of state’s race, Adcock said he hadn't yet decided.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta; Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.