Matt Lesser and Hilda Santiago
Matt Lesser and Hilda Santiago are running for the Democratic nomination for Secretary of the State. Credit: Contributed images / the candidates' Facebook pages

Two Democrats in the legislature joined a handful of candidates last week evaluating a campaign to replace Connecticut’s top election official in an emerging race for next year’s only known open contest for statewide office. 

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill announced in June she would not seek a fourth term, making her the only constitutional officer not expected to run for reelection. The first stirrings of a primary race have begun to take shape in the weeks since. 

Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, launched a general exploratory committee last Monday and Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, followed suit two days later. New Haven Alderman Darryl Brackeen formed a committee in July, as did Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden. 

Meanwhile, two Republicans have organized candidate committees aimed at retaking a position held by Democrats for more than 25 years: Brock Weber of New Britain and Dominic Rapini of Branford. 

The post has taken on a higher profile in the past year. Former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that widespread voter fraud contributed to his loss have fueled suspicion around election integrity and resulted in some states clamping down on ballot access in the name of security. 

Last year, Merrill spearheaded efforts to ease absentee ballot access during the pandemic. Connecticut’s absentee ballot policies are among the most restrictive in the country and Merrill has backed a constitutional amendment to let voters consider relaxing them. The resolution met opposition from Republican lawmakers and will need to be approved by the legislature again after the next election if voters are to consider it in 2024.  

“We’re at a moment right now as a country where we’ve got to figure out what the future of democracy looks like,” Lesser said Tuesday. “Whoever takes that job should be able to make sure that elections are held with integrity but also allow full voter participation and do our part to stand up against attempts to undermine America’s system of elections.”

Until next year, a number of candidates will compete for the chance to determine how best to do that. 

Lesser’s bid was expected. First elected to the legislature in 2008, he formed a committee to explore a run for secretary of the state in 2018 but bowed out when Merrill signaled she would seek reelection. 

Santiago, who won her first term in the House in 2012, also has been organizing support in recent weeks. Currently, Democrats hold all six constitutional offices in Connecticut and none are represented by officials of Hispanic descent. A Tuesday press release announcing her exploratory committee described Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico, as “the highest-ranking elected Latina in the State of Connecticut.”

In the same press release, Rep. Geraldo Reyes, a Waterbury Democrat who is vice chair of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said Santiago would be an important voice in the conversation on ballot access.

“With minority voting rights under attack across the country, we’ve never needed her perspective more than we do now,” Reyes said. “Hilda knows what it’s like to balance work, family and life — with the added challenges that being a person of color can bring in this country.”

Brackeen struck a similar tone at a fundraising event last month when, according to the New Haven Independent, he argued that the voting rights of people in underrepresented and disenfranchised communities were under attack. 

Brackeen is also seeking a sixth term as a New Haven alderman and his roots in that Democratic stronghold may serve as a boon to his candidacy. The Independent quoted influential Democratic Town Chair Vincent Mauro as saying, “It’s high time New Haven had someone on the statewide ticket.” Mauro, who is also chief of staff to the Senate Democratic caucus, had not yet endorsed a specific candidate. 

Elliott, who was first elected to the House in 2016, said he also intended to explore a run for the office. The position has become more important than ever as a face of government both for business dealings and voting rights, he said. 

“We have seen just massive amounts of dis- and misinformation,” Elliott said. “So I think that whoever runs for this position — and I know a number of my colleagues are as well — the most important thing we can all talk about is transparency and trust in the process.”

While the Democrats considering the post have formed generic exploratory committees capable of pivoting to other offices, the two Republicans in the race have launched more specific campaigns directed at the secretary of the state position. 

Weber works as an aide to New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, according to his campaign website. He formed a committee to run for the office back in April.

“I’m not a career politician. I have no visions of grandeur. This office is not a political stepping stone for me. As a political operative, I hold a deep passion about election law and creating a free and fair environment for elections to take place,” Weber said in a video on his website. 

Rapini, meanwhile, ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2018. Since then, he has appeared at several legislative hearings to allege incidents of voter fraud as board chair of the nonprofit organization Fight Voter Fraud, Inc. Last month he told radio host Vinnie Penn he has since resigned the position to focus on the campaign for secretary of the state, which he called “one of the most important constitutional seats in our elections in 2022.”