Katie Hobbs, Steve Gaynor in tight race for Arizona secretary of state

Workers scramble to set up a new polling site after being locked out of the Gila polling site in Chandler due to the tenants' failure to pay rent, Nov. 6, 2018.

Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Steve Gaynor are squaring off in a tight race to be Arizona’s next secretary of state.

In Arizona, the secretary of state is the No. 2 statewide elected official, next in line to succeed the governor if they leave office early. That has happened four times since the 1970s.

The secretary of state also is charged with overseeing the statewide elections system, which has faced a string of problems in recent years.

Hobbs and Gaynor regularly traded barbs over who has the right experience to manage elections. They also bickered over who can do the job impartially.

The race is one of the most competitive statewide contests on the ballot for Tuesday. Both sides have shattered spending records for the office and funded a host of negative ads.

Highly competitive race

Democrats have viewed Hobbs’ campaign as perhaps their best chance to pick up a statewide office this November. Polling has shown the race could be a dead heat.

Hobbs, the minority leader in the Arizona Senate, has focused on her proposals to make it easier to vote. She said the state needs to remove barriers that can make it hard for minorities, seniors and low-income people to cast ballots.

“The secretary of state needs to be fair and impartial,” Hobbs,D-Phoenix, said during the campaign. “That’s the core of our democracy, that right to vote.”

She has raised about $925,000 for her campaign. But the Arizona Democratic Party spent more than $2.2 million on coordinated ads to boost her message in the final stretch.

Gaynor, a wealthy businessman, has never held office before and had almost no public profile before this year. He defeated incumbent Michele Reagan in the primary, a race that was defined by his attacks on her missteps overseeing elections.

He has often talked about how his business experience has prepared him for the job, calling the Secretary of State’s Office a “classic turnaround.”

“We need someone with real management and budget experience in the office,” Gaynor said in an Oct. 31 post on Twitter. “My 35 years in the printing industry gives me the tools needed to fix the problems.”

He said he decided to run after Republicans asked him to jump into the primary because of concerns that Reagan could lose the seat for the GOP.

Gaynor has raised $2.56 million for his campaign. He loaned the vast majority of that money, $2.35 million, to his own campaign. Gaynor owns a printing plant in California and made much of his fortune in the printing business.

Different views on ballot access

The candidates have fundamentally different philosophies when it comes to the ease of voting and transparency of money in politics.

Hobbs wants to overturn a state law that makes it illegal to drop off another person’s completed ballot at a polling place. She’s eager to expand voting-center hours so voters have more time to get to the polls.

She also wants to automatically restore rehabilitated felons’ voting rights once they have completed their sentences and paid all fines.

“I think every American should want every American to be able to vote,” Hobbs said recently.

She also wants to end so-called “dark money,” or anonymous political spending, in elections. Gaynor and Republicans in the state Legislature oppose new disclosure requirements for such groups.

Gaynor, meanwhile, talks little about ballot access, instead focusing on his concerns about hypothetical fraud and unsubstantiated allegations that unauthorized immigrants could be voting.

Cases of voter fraud are rare. Since 2008, about 20 people have been convicted in Arizona for voting twice in an election, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Gaynor has alleged that “illegal immigrants” could be voting as the result of a legal settlement the state entered to resolve a lawsuit alleging it wasn’t registering some eligible voters for federal elections.

Two statewide Republican officials, incumbent Secretary of State Michele Reagan and Attorney General Mark Brnovich, signed off on that settlement.

“The secretary of state must restore trust and confidence in the integrity of our elections,” Gaynor wrote in response to The Arizona Republic‘s candidate questionnaire.

During the primary, Gaynor came under fire after he said the United States should stop printing ballots and election pamphlets in Spanish. He has since said he no longer holds that view.

Voter-advocacy groups have called Gaynor’s statement troubling. The American Civil Liberties Union spent about $110,000 on Spanish-language radio ads raising concerns about his statements.

“Steve Gaynor openly advocated to make it harder to vote for non-English speakers,” the ad states.

Sharp attacks in bitter race

In terms of tone, the candidates have run vastly different campaigns. Hobbs focused on her desire to make the Secretary of State’s Office more “nonpartisan” and attacked Gaynor far less often.

Gaynor has run a more partisan race, speaking at pro-Trump rallies and releasing attack ads labeling Hobbs a “radical leftist” and liberal.

He spoke at President Donald Trump’s Oct. 19 rally in Mesa.

Echoing Trump’s sentiment, Gaynor led the crowd to chant “fake news” and warned that America faces a threat “from within our borders, from those who believe that socialism is better than free markets.”

He has repeatedly attacked Hobbs over a comment she made earlier this year, at a candidate forum in Flagstaff, about how winning the seat would help Democrats hold on to elected offices.

One of his ads labeled her statement an abuse of office.

Hobbs rejected the accusation. She said her comment was about voter suppression and how Arizona has laws and practices that make it harder for certain types of people, such as minorities, to vote.

But Democrats haven’t let the attacks go unanswered.

Hobbs has portrayed Gaynor as a dangerous, unpredictable choice given he had little public profile until this year. One of her ads labeled him “inexperienced” given he’s never held office.

Democrats have also attacked Gaynor over a series of lawsuits he settled related to his businesses.

In one case, Gaynor paid more than $134,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit over allegations that he underpaid dozens of workers at his printing plant near Los Angeles.

Gaynor also settled a related discrimination lawsuit brought by an employee who alleged Gaynor refused to accommodate his disability after a workplace injury.

He said the allegations contained in both lawsuits were false. Gaynor said his company settled to avoid costly litigation.

He called the cases an example of California’s nightmarish regulations for businesses, evoking a campaign talking point about how he wants to prevent Arizona from becoming “a mess like California.”

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