Democrats Remain on Defensive for AG Spots in 2011-2012

The outlook for upcoming state attorney general races has changed only slightly. Out of six competitive races, Democrats will have to protect four seats versus the Republicans' two.
by | September 21, 2011

The outlook for the 2011-2012 state attorney general races has changed only modestly in the nine months since we last analyzed them. Our ratings have shifted slightly, but six of the 13 races are still competitive.

Currently, the national balance is split evenly: 25 Democrats to 25 Republicans, down from a 32-18 Democratic lead prior to last year's election. The rapid erosion of Democratic control of state AG offices is an ominous development for the party, since it robs the party of a meaty policy office and a key job for building an in-state farm team for higher office.

For the 2011-2012 cycle, we rate four contests as tossups -- two of them Democratic-held Montana and West Virginia, and two of them Republican-held Washington state and Pennsylvania. Two other AG seats, all held by Democrats, are rated lean Democratic (Kentucky and Missouri).

Meanwhile, seven contests in 2011-2012 look strong for the incumbent party -- Utah, Indiana and Louisiana for the Republicans, and Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon and Vermont for the Democrats.

Of these, two were competitive when we last analyzed them. But with Buddy Caldwell's party switch from Democrat to Republican in Louisiana, the race is now safe for Republicans. And in Mississippi, the GOP opponent to long-serving Democratic AG Jim Hood has yet to demonstrate a strong likelihood of an upset.

The tossup races make it hard to provide a solid estimate for which party might post gains in 2011 and 2012. Still, Democrats remain on the defensive, having to protect four of the competitive seats, compared to just two for the Republicans.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the 2011-2012 AG races:

Safe Republican

Louisiana (R-held: previous rating: lean Democratic; 2011 election). Louisiana Democrats had hope for this seat. All that vanished, however, when incumbent AG James (Buddy) Caldwell switched his party affiliation to the GOP. He faced a primary challenge from former one-term U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, but Cao recently dropped out of the primary, essentially assuring Caldwell another term.

Utah (R-held; 2012 election). Incumbent Republican Mark Shurtleff ended months of speculation in July when he revealed that he would not seek a fourth term in 2012. The frontrunner is his deputy, John Swallow, who should be able to keep this seat in Republican hands, particularly after GOP state Sen. John Valentine decided against challenging Swallow in a primary.

Indiana (R-held; 2012 election). First-term Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller appears to have smooth sailing, with no significant opposition emerging. In general, the 2011-2012 elections are looking favorable for Indiana Republicans.


Montana (D-held; 2012 election). After a period of uncertainty, Democratic AG Steve Bullock decided to jump into the gubernatorial race. That leaves a wide-open race to succeed, with at least two Democrats -- former state Sen. Jesse Laslovich and former assistant AG Pam Bucy -- and at least one Republican, state Sen. Jim Shockley, in the running. This contest is still in the early stages of development, so we'll keep it at tossup for now.

West Virginia (D-held; 2012 election). Though West Virginia has been home to a series of bruising business versus labor races in recent years, the AG race has been slow to develop, perhaps because a 2011 special election for governor is scheduled first. Five-term incumbent Darrell McGraw, a populist staunchly opposed by business leaders, has filed papers to run for a sixth term. So far, the GOP opposition is unclear. This contest would merit at least a lean Democratic rating were it not for the question of how much of a drag President Obama will be further down the ballot.

Washington state (R-held, 2012 election). With the incumbent Rob McKenna running for governor, the AG contest will likely be decided in a race between two King County councilmembers -- Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson. Dunn benefits from name recognition (his mother was a long-serving U.S. representative), a modest fundraising advantage and a base in the ordinarily Democratic stronghold of King County. As for Ferguson, his Democratic affiliation should be a plus. But despite the state's partisan leanings, three of the last four AGs have been Republican. With both candidates relatively unknown outside of the Seattle area, there's a long way to go in this race.

Pennsylvania (R-held; 2012 election). The open seat vacated by now-Gov. Tom Corbett represents what may be the best Democratic pickup opportunity for an AG seat this cycle. Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran who was defeated for reelection in the GOP sweep of 2010, has the highest profile of anyone in the race, as well as a knack for fundraising. He faces primary opposition from two lesser-known candidates, ex-prosecutors Kathleen Granahan Kane and Dan McCaffery. With interim AG Linda Kelly not running for a full term, the only notable GOP contender so far is state Sen. John Rafferty. He'll benefit from the GOP's historical hold on the office. But with some good breaks, this could be the Democrats' year to finally seize the Pennsylvania attorney general's office.

Lean Democratic

Kentucky (D-held: previous rating: tossup; 2011 election). Incumbent Jack Conway looked like damaged goods after losing badly to Republican Rand Paul in the 2010 Senate race. But Conway has managed to maintain a double-digit lead over Hopkins County Attorney Todd P'Pool, a Republican, in the most recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm. The troubled campaign of the GOP gubernatorial nominee, state Senate president David Williams, isn't doing P'Pool any favors. The AG race could edge into tossup territory if P'Pool continues his current arc, but for right now, Conway has a slight edge.

Missouri (D-held; 2012 election). Little has changed in this contest since we last looked. First-term Attorney General Chris Koster is a Democrat, but he's also a former Republican who's generally taken a moderate approach that's consistent with voter preferences in the Show-Me State. The GOP has been on a roll in recent election cycles, but the GOP outlook for the AG race is murky.

Likely Democratic

Mississippi (D-held; previous rating: tossup; 2011 election). Two-term Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood looks safer than he did nine months ago, having escaped a top-tier challenger, such as Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. Hood remains the only statewide elected Democrat in Mississippi. His GOP opponent, Steve Simpson -- previously a circuit court judge and former Department of Public Safety head -- trails him badly in fundraising. Simpson faces an uphill climb, even in a ruby-red state.

North Carolina (D-held; previous rating: lean Democratic; 2012 election). This race moves one notch in favor of the Democrats, due to uncertainty about who might run on the GOP side. Despite North Carolina's growing Republican lean, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has won three straight terms, and he remains the favorite for a fourth. Problems regarding improper handling of cases with the state's crime lab during Cooper's tenure are still likely fodder for attack ads, but the GOP has not yet found the right vehicle to exploit this vulnerability.

Safe Democratic

Oregon (D-held; previous rating: likely Democratic; 2012 election). We're shifting Oregon to safe Democratic, where it will likely stay for the duration, unless the GOP manages to pull a top-tier contender out of its hat. Otherwise, first-term AG John Kroger will have a smooth path to victory in 2012.

Vermont (D-held; 2012 election). Long-serving AG William Sorrell shouldn't have anything to worry about in 2012.


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