Scoring secretary of state seats for Dems

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Plagued by memories of Florida’s Katherine Harris and Ohio’s Ken Blackwell, a little-known 527 group helped win secretary of state posts for Democrats in five swing states during the last election cycle. Now the group has its sights on four more.

The Secretary of State Project, which as a 527 non-profit group can exert influence on elections, raised more than $500,000 in 2006 to ensure no right-leaning secretary of state will swing the 2008 presidential election to the GOP, as they did in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. So far the group has scored victories in Nevada, New Mexico, Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio.

The SoS Project organizers formed the group “to protect our elections from dirty Republican tricks,” according to the group’s website. In many states, secretaries of state oversee voter registration, election rules, voting machines, and recounts. Positioning allies in these slots became a key strategy and a natural starting point.

Though disclosure forms do not capture the group’s involvement, the SoS Project has generated huge financial support for the seven candidates it supported last election season (the group backed losing candidates in Colorado and Michigan). While $500,000 might not seem like much compared to some of the figures being tossed around in national races, that sort of money makes a huge difference in state races.

For instance, the SoS Project reports giving Jennifer Brunner $167,000 toward her race for Ohio’s secretary of state spot (when she won the seat being vacated by Blackwell, the Democrats’ nemesis from the 2004 presidential race). That amount puts the group among the campaign’s top three donors. According to its website, the group also contributed 10 percent of the campaign budget for Mary Herrera, who won the New Mexico secretary of state race. The remaining money (around $300,000) was dropped in contests where the largest donors were putting in just $15,000.

Using ActBlue, an online fundraising tool for left-leaning activists, the SoS Project raised, on average, $250 per donor. Major funding for the group itself, however, came from some prominent Democratic fundraisers.

Jennifer BrunnerThe first big check, for $32,000, came from Michael Kieschnick, one of the group’s founders, who calls the project “a labor of love.” Kieschnick’s day job is running a telecommunications company, which donates one percent of its profits to progressive nonprofit groups. In his role as a Democratic money man, he is connected to the Democracy Alliance, a network of about 100 wealthy donors who coordinate support for progressive causes.

Three other members of the Democracy Alliance donated substantial sums to the SoS Project: Susie Tompkins Buell gave $5,000; Daniel Berger, $10,000; and Gail Furman, who sits on the Democracy Alliance’s board, $20,000. In addition, Gerald and Lilo Leeds, two prominent Democratic funders, gave $10,000 a piece, and another funder, Arthur Lipson, chipped in $25,350.

The group has just started fundraising for candidates in this election cycle, in Missouri, Oregon, Montana, and West Virginia.

Analysis of state election data provided no apparent similar nationwide effort being made by Republicans.