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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.

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