LAS VEGAS — Ted Pappageorge, the head of Culinary Union Local 226, whipped up the crowd of canvassers into a frenzy on a recent Monday morning, earning him “sí, se puede!” chants. But before he sent the canvassers out to knock on doors for Cisco Aguilar, the Democratic candidate of secretary of state, he had a question.
“Does anybody know what the secretary of state does in the state of Nevada?” Mr. Pappageorge asked. A few murmured “voting” and a half dozen raised their hands. The buzzing quieted, before Mr. Pappageorge offered his take: The office oversees the election and “makes sure it doesn’t get stolen by any of these MAGA extreme Republicans.” The cheering returned.
Such is the plight of many Democratic candidates for secretary of state, an office that has long lived in political obscurity and rarely inspired great passions among voters. But in 2022, after secretaries of state helped thwart Donald J. Trump’s attempt to overturn his defeat, races for the post have taken on new urgency. Facing off against Republican candidates who spread lies about the 2020 election, Democrats have poured tens of millions into the contests, casting them as battles for the future of American democracy.
If only they could get voters to see it that way. Instead, voters remain focused on rising inflation, economic woes, education and other issues that are outside the purview of the official duties of a secretary of state. And while a vast majority of Americans view democracy as under threat, a striking few see it as a top issue, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.
Democrats are facing other challenges. Many of the candidates are relative unknowns, leaving their futures heavily dependent on what voters think of their party or the party’s high-profile candidates for Senate or governor.
The Democrats’ positions — promoting early voting options, including mail voting and protecting poll workers — are not headline-making policies. But Republicans’ denials of the 2020 election, murky statements about upholding future results or pledges to restrict voting to a single day grab the attention of both supporters and detractors.
Six of these election-denying candidates for secretary of state are on the ballot in November; one, Diego Morales in Indiana, appears positioned to win in the deeply red state, and several are locked in tight battles. That includes states like Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, presidential battlegrounds where a single election official’s refusal to certify the result could set off a constitutional crisis.
As he campaigns, Mr. Aguilar, a 45-year-old lawyer, former board member of the Nevada Athletic Commission and onetime aide to Senator Harry Reid, has sought to tie voters’ top-tier issues to elections.
“If I lose this race, your potential to have a say in your kid’s future education is on the line,” Mr. Aguilar said in an interview. “Because the way we change it is electing people that believe in public education.”
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Both parties are making their final pitches ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
“That opportunity vote goes away because my opponent wants to go back to a single day of voting,” he added. “Which in this town, in a 24/7 economy, somebody either works that shift or is working multiple jobs.”
Mr. Aguilar’s opponent, Jim Marchant, is the organizer of the America First Secretary of State Coalition, a group of hard-right candidates who have called for eliminating mail voting, using only paper ballots, returning to a single day of voting and giving partisan poll watchers “unfettered access.” It’s a platform that has alarmed election experts and even left some Republicans worried that the group’s members could soon be in a position to overturn or tilt the scales of an election.
Last week, Mr. Marchant seemed to indicate that was part of the plan.
“I’ve been working since Nov. 4, 2020, to expose what happened. And what I found out is horrifying. And when I’m secretary of state of Nevada, we’re going to fix it,” Mr. Marchant said, referring to the 2020 election during a rally onstage with Mr. Trump. “And when my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we’re going to fix the whole country and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”
It was secretaries of state — both Republican and Democratic — who played a central role in blocking Mr. Trump’s attempt to subvert the 2020 election. Seeing those losses, key allies of Mr. Trump soon began lining up to run for the office. Mr. Marchant has said that a close ally of Mr. Trump approached him in the aftermath of that election and suggested he run. (Voter fraud is rare, and there was no evidence that fraud determined the 2020 election.)
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More than a dozen candidates joined the America First Coalition, with six advancing to secure Republican nominations, including Mark Finchem in Arizona, Kristina Karamo in Michigan and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania. (Mr. Mastriano is the candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, but the governor there appoints the secretary of state.)
Though these officials’ authority varies by state, nearly all have significant oversight in the voting process — from registration to certification.
In Nevada, the secretary of state could decide to invalidate all election machines, a plan Mr. Marchant has spoken favorably about, forcing a hand-counted vote that would be riddled with errors and would most likely take days to tabulate.
The secretary also is required to be present for the canvassing of the votes by the justices of the state Supreme Court. And in Nevada, as in many states, the office is in charge of audits, as well as assisting in investigations into potential claims of voter fraud.
Aside from these powers, secretaries of state have also served as an influential counter to false claims of fraud, misinformation and disinformation about American elections.
“One of my biggest concerns with someone like Jim Marchant in that role is that they can use that platform to do exactly the opposite, and exacerbate or spread disinformation,” said Ben Berwick, a counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan organization focused on election issues.
“The idea of putting these people in charge of our elections is nuts,” Mr. Berwick said. “Many of these candidates have said that they would not have certified the 2020 election, and there is good reason to believe they will use their power to try to manipulate the results if their preferred candidate doesn’t win in 2024.”
Mr. Marchant, his campaign manager, his press officer and the head of the state Republican Party did not respond to repeated requests for comment, made in person and in phone calls, text messages and emails.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which is the campaign arm of the Republican National Committee responsible for secretary of state races (as well as state legislatures and lieutenant governor races), is not spending money on Mr. Marchant’s bid or any of the other election-denying candidates. The committee said it was too badly outspent by Democrats.
“We simply cannot match what Democrats are spending on these races and we need to prioritize protecting our incumbents,” said Andrew Romeo, a committee spokesman.
Though the committee is contributing to multiple incumbent secretaries of state, the only incumbent receiving advertising support from it is Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia who rebuffed requests by Mr. Trump to help him overturn the 2020 election there. Mr. Raffensperger has been critical of those who continue to make false claims about the 2020 election.
Indeed, Republicans are not even close to competing with Democrats and allied groups, such as iVote and End Citizens United, on TV ads, currently being outspent by a 57-to-1 margin, according to AdImpact, an ad-tracking firm. Democrats have spent more than $40.6 million on broadcast television ads since July in six battleground states. Republicans have spent just $700,000, with more than $500,000 of that coming from Raffensperger’s campaign.
Mr. Marchant has run a nearly invisible campaign. His website and social media accounts have not listed an event in the state in months; the only records of his events have been at local Republican fund-raisers. His campaign reported raising just $89,000 in the third quarter, compared with $1.1 million for Mr. Aguilar.
He has not been given a speaking slot at an event with either Republican candidate running for Senate or governor since the primary elections in July; and they have been loath to mention his name while campaigning.
Yet polls show Mr. Marchant with a lead on Mr. Aguilar, a reality some political experts in the state say reflects the race’s low visibility and broader political trends, which show Republicans with an edge in Nevada.
Mr. Aguilar, a first-time candidate, has been campaigning steadily, knocking doors and finding a space in events around the state wherever he can. This month, he attended an Indigenous people’s event at the base of the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, then shuttled over to a union hall before crossing the Las Vegas Strip for a small-business round table at the Four Seasons, where he dined with the president of the Nevada Chamber of Commerce.
As he courts voters, Mr. Aguilar at times talks about his more memorable credentials. As a member of the Nevada Athletic Commission, he helped bring Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. to fight in Las Vegas in 2015. He’s close to the former tennis star Andre Agassi, a Las Vegas native, and worked as general counsel for the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education.
But he spends most of his precious time talking to voters sounding almost like a civics teacher. “The secretary of state has an important role in our election process,” he told a crowd at another Indigenous people’s event at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The secretary of state is the regulator of elections.”