Skip to content

Secretaries of State Face Long Odds in Making the Leap to Senate

It’s not a natural springboard to the Senate, but the position of secretary of state may appear that way leading up to the 2014 midterms. By this time next year, as many as four Senate nominees may list that job at the top of their political résumés.

If Senate Democrats successfully recruit West Virginia’s Natalie Tennant, each party would have two Senate candidates running in a potentially competitive race who have served as secretary of state — a position held by fewer than a dozen senators in the past century.

Although best-known for running state elections offices, a secretary’s duties actually vary widely by state. Some states don’t have a position with that title at all, and the role is an elected position in just 35 states. But even among those elected to the downballot statewide office, their anonymity and relatively tame campaigns have contributed to an uneven record in subsequent Senate bids.

“Running as a U.S. Senate candidate is hard, and it helps to have taken some lumps in prior contests,” Republican pollster Dan Judy said. “Running for secretary of state doesn’t always give you that experience.”

This year’s crop is really a continuation of a recent trend, as the secretary job’s profile has increased and in turn invited more ambitious types. Already running for Senate seats next year are Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and two Republicans who previously held the position, Karen Handel of Georgia and Terri Lynn Land of Michigan.

While each of those candidates is running under unique circumstances — Grimes is challenging the top Republican in the Senate, while Handel and Land have both run for other statewide positions — basing a Senate bid on success as a secretary of state carries inherent advantages and challenges across the board.

“Yes, we’re elected statewide, so political insiders know who we are, but voters really don’t know that much about us,” said former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who lost the Republican Senate nomination in 2010 to now-Sen. Rand Paul.

“We may have decent name ID, but it’s weak brand ID. That was something I discovered when I ran,” Grayson continued. “Despite the higher profile, it’s not like it’s a natural pivot into the next statewide race. And I think sometimes that puts us in a bit of a tough spot, because there’s this perception that maybe we’re stronger candidates than we really are.”

The U.S. Senate Historical Office does not maintain a list of former secretaries of state who have served in the Senate. But according to data compiled from the National Association of Secretaries of State and other sources, CQ Roll Call identified just 10 senators since 1904 who ever held that position.

Of those 10 — seven Democrats and three Republicans — just three were elected to the Senate as a sitting secretary of state. That last happened in 1996, when Democrat Max Cleland was elected in Georgia after more than a decade as the Peach State’s secretary of state. The other seven were either elected governor or to the House before winning a Senate seat.

Current senators who served as secretary of state include Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“Not exactly the office you think of as a launching pad,” Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “One thing that I think is appealing is that these candidates have a statewide office profile to talk about … but very little paper trail. So they start with a fairly blank slate in terms of vulnerability.”

Being a “blank slate” was one of the attributes Kentucky Democrats used to describe Grimes in July as she kicked off her challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. While there may be little from her past for Republicans to attack, the amount of money already pouring into that race from both sides means few voters won’t know her name by November 2014.

In Georgia, Handel is mired in a deep Republican field for Senate. But her name recognition extends beyond her most recent elected position — she fell just 2,500 votes short of the gubernatorial nomination in 2010 and gained national notice as an executive at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.

Over the past decade, it has not been all that unusual for secretaries of state to run for the Senate — less common was actually winning. Perhaps the most well-known loser of the bunch was Florida Republican Katherine Harris, who ran for Senate six years after her prominent role in that state’s infamous recount after the 2000 presidential election.

But there have been several others in recent years. On the Democratic side alone, unsuccessful primary candidates have included Connecticut’s Susan Bysiewicz and Maine’s Matt Dunlap in 2012, Ohio’s Jennifer Brunner in 2010 and Rhode Island’s Matt Brown in 2006. In 2010, Blunt defeated Missouri Democratic Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the daughter of a former governor and senator.

So what exactly do secretaries of state do? A little bit of everything, said North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who lost a challenge to Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr in 2010 before winning a fifth term last year.

“The secretary of state’s office is kind of the Swiss army knife of government — we do a lot of different things,” Marshall said.

Depending on the state, that could include everything from handling motor vehicle issues to business interests, trademark enforcement, lobbying and ethics disclosures, and, perhaps most commonly, elections. Marshall’s office doesn’t handle elections or motor vehicles, but she gets calls for them anyway.

“For me, here in North Carolina, at times it’s very high profile. At other times it’s somewhat ministerial,” Marshall said. “If you look at the different offices, they’re different across the board. But they’re all going to end up being page-one, above-the-fold issues at some time that the public is interested in.”

Yet the office itself has changed with a new wave of election laws and technology providing easier access for businesses and the public, Grayson said. Much of the office’s higher profile can be linked to the 2000 presidential election and the ensuing Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandated minimum standards for states’ elections administration.

It’s still largely a non-ideological office, and the switch to stumping about federal issues isn’t always a smooth pivot. Nearly four times as many secretaries have been elected governor, according to the NASS, but Grayson believes many more Senate campaigns are to come.

“It used to be a sleepy little backwater office,” Grayson said. “My suspicion is if you write this in 50 years about secretaries of state running for Senate, that the statistics will be a lot higher.”