Once-sleepy down-ballot races are now high-profile partisan brawls

Fierce battles for control of the House and Senate along with 36 gubernatorial races would make for a full election year. But a slew of 2022 down-ballot races, for state supreme court and secretary of state, only adds to voter multitude of midterm candidate choices.

Former President Donald Trump’s 2017-21 White House term has much to do with the increased attention on such statewide constitutional offices — particularly the way it ended. Despite a clean, 306-232 Electoral College loss to President Joe Biden, Trump in the winter of 2020-21 didn’t leave the White House quietly. Trump and Republican allies alleged, at various times, that Biden and fellow Democrats had “rigged,” “cheated,” or “stolen” the election in several swing states. Judges in more than 60 courts, both federal and state, rejected these claims.

And though the Trump efforts came to naught, with Biden assuming the presidency on Jan. 20, 2021, they put a spotlight on the importance of roles played by statewide officials charged with counting votes and administering elections. So, going into the 2022 midterm elections, what had been often-sleepy races for these positions have drawn keen interest from both parties.

Secretary of state

Secretaries of state became household names during the Trump era. Most prominent was Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican whom Trump, in a Jan. 2, 2021, recorded phone call, attempted to persuade to change the Peach State election results. Raffensperger refused to do this and said the outgoing president’s claims were based on falsehoods. The episode has drawn the interest of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office is investigating whether state laws were broken in the attempt to tip Georgia’s electoral votes to Trump.

Raffensperger in November is vying for a second term and is favored to win against Democratic nominee Bee Nguyen, a state senator in Georgia. And though Trump became frustrated with Raffensperger for refusing to do his bidding, several Republican nominees for secretary of state are aligned with the former president on election-related matters.

In Nevada, Jim Marchant has said his Nov. 1 priority would be to “overhaul the fraudulent election system.” Marchant, a former Republican state assemblyman, has also said he would not have certified Biden’s 2020 win in the Silver State. Marchant’s Democratic opponent for secretary of state is Cisco Aguilar, an attorney, former state athletic commissioner, and previously a congressional aide.

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In neighboring Arizona, Republican secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem has claimed, falsely, that Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Finchem, a state representative, has proposed widespread restrictions on voting in Arizona. He’s also called for the arrest of the current secretary of state, Katie Hobbs, who oversaw the administration of the 2020 elections and is now the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Finchem’s Democratic opponent for secretary of state is Adrian Fontes, former Maricopa County recorder, an attorney, and Marine Corps veteran.

Overall, in 2022, there are 27 secretary of state offices on the ballot. Along with Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada, these elections are in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

State supreme court

Unlike seats for the federal Supreme Court, where nominees are nominated by the president and must earn Senate confirmation to take the bench, many states elect their top jurists. And these races, once low-key and wonky affairs, have emerged as hard-fought partisan battlegrounds.

State supreme courts are also often the last line in deciding election disputes. And states have assumed larger roles on hot-button social issues such as abortion access. The Supreme Court’s June 24 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade and kicked abortion back to the states. Additionally, state judicial benches have seen their dockets swell in cases about how political district lines are drawn after the Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that federal courts have no role in deciding claims of partisan gerrymandering.

There are state Supreme Court elections in 30 states this year, with 85 seats in all on the ballot.

Ohio has one of the most pitched battles for state Supreme Court, with three seats before voters in November. Republicans control the state Supreme Court 4-3, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Though Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is a Republican, she has repeatedly sided with Democratic colleagues in ruling on redistricting litigation. In the 2022 cycle, that included striking down congressional and state legislative maps drawn by Republicans in Columbus.

Now, two incumbent Ohio Supreme Court justices are running to replace O’Connor for the chief justice slot, Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Sharon Kennedy. Elsewhere on the Ohio Supreme Court ballot, Republican Pat Fischer faces a challenge from Democrat Terri Jamison, a fellow judge on the Ohio 10th District Court of Appeals — as does GOP Justice Pat DeWine, a son of Gov. Mike DeWine, from Democrat Marilyn Zayas, who is a judge on the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals.

Ohio’s Supreme Court elections stand out in 2022, particularly because, for the first time in the state, candidates will have party affiliation next to their name on the general election ballot. State Supreme Court races are also being moved higher on the ballot to be grouped with statewide contests such as senator and governor, instead of being listed below without party affiliation.

North Carolina is another state with hotly contested state supreme court races. Democrats hold a 4-3 majority, but Republicans could overturn that in November. Two Democratic-held seats are up. One incumbent is Justice Sam J. Ervin IV, the grandson of former Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC), who led the Senate Watergate investigations. He faces Trey Allen, a University of North Carolina law professor and former judge advocate in the United States Marine Corps.

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There’s also an open state Supreme Court seat on the ballot in North Carolina this fall. Democrat Lucy Inman faces a fellow judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, Republican Richard Dietz.

Partisan control of the North Carolina Supreme Court is a high priority for both parties since the panel over the past decade has repeatedly been in the middle of partisan redistricting fights. That includes several times ordering Republican state legislators to redraw maps, most recently in 2021.

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