Attorney General Races: Democrats' Odds Improving

If current trends hold, the Democrats could net one AG seat this year, which would be a small improvement from the 2010 elections.
by , | October 12, 2012

The story of the state attorneys general races over the past six months has been the disappearance of the tossup race. The last time we looked at AG races in March, four of the 10 contests were considered tossups. Now, there are none.

The shifts over the past six months, however, have helped the Democrats. Three former tossups now lean Democratic -- Washington state, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The remaining tossup -- Montana -- has shifted to lean Republican.

The only other competitive AG race for this fall is Missouri, which remains lean Democratic. Two races (Utah and Indiana) are safe Republican, while three (Oregon, Vermont and North Carolina) are safe Democratic.

If current trends hold, the Democrats could net one AG seat this year, which would be a small improvement following the party’s disastrous 2010 cycle. Currently, the national balance for AG offices is exactly even: There are 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans, down from a 32-18 Democratic lead before the 2010 elections. The Democrats could gain one additional AG seat if they take over Maine’s Legislature, which appoints the AG, from the GOP.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the 2012 AG races:

Safe Republican

Utah (R-held; no change in rating): John Swallow remains the overwhelming favorite to succeed outgoing Republican AG Mark Shurtleff in heavily Republican Utah. Swallow defeated Sean Reyes in the GOP primary and has proceeded to amass a massive cash advantage over Weber County Attorney Dee Smith.

Indiana (R-held; no change in rating): First-term Republican AG Greg Zoeller shouldn’t have much trouble defeating Indianapolis attorney Kay Fleming, who faces a shortage of name identification and money in a year when the GOP candidates are expected to chalk up solid wins in both the presidential and gubernatorial races in the state. Zoeller will have enough money to run a steady stream of ads until Election Day, and many of his activities -- a crackdown on companies that sell synthetic drugs, efforts to fight telemarketers and robocalls, and lawsuits against mortgage aid companies -- should play well with a wide range of voters, rather than just the Republican base.

Lean Republican

Montana (D-held; change from tossup): Republicans are bullish about their chance of flipping several Democratic-held seats in Montana this fall, including the AG seat being vacated by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock. Republican Tim Fox, a private-sector attorney who gave Bullock a run for his money in 2008, is outpacing Democratic former prosecutor Pam Bucy in advertising, and a Lee Newspapers poll in September showed Fox leading Bucy 46 percent to 37 percent. Bucy might have a better shot with more money, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.

Lean Democratic

Washington state (R-held, shift from tossup): Two King County councilmembers -- Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson -- continue their aggressive battle for the seat being vacated by Republican Rob McKenna, who is seeking the governorship. The race has shifted slightly in the Democrats’ direction, perhaps because of the state’s natural partisan orientation. Ferguson won the Aug. 7 all-party primary with 52 percent (two Republicans were in the race), and a KING 5 News poll showed Ferguson up 42 percent to 33 percent -- an improvement from previous polls. Still, Republican strength in the gubernatorial race and Dunn’s moderate stance on some issues -- including same-sex marriage, which is on the November ballot -- are keeping this one close.

West Virginia (D-held; shift from tossup): Five-term incumbent Darrell McGraw is a populist and longtime target of business groups, but his familiarity to voters gives him a modest edge against Republican Patrick Morrisey. National Democrats are highly unpopular in the state, but West Virginia Democrats, like McGraw, know how to survive.

Missouri (D-held; no change in rating): Ed Martin, who served as chief of staff to former one-term GOP Gov. Matt Blunt, easily won the Republican primary and is now the nominee against first-term Attorney General Chris Koster, a Republican-turned-modern-Democrat. A poll by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling had Koster leading 52 percent to 34 percent, possibly due to a combination of incumbency; Koster’s moderate approach, which mirrors that of popular Gov. Jay Nixon; and Martin’s stormy tenure as Blunt's top aide. (Martin resigned after a controversy over deleted e-mails in Blunt’s administration.) Still, President Barack Obama isn’t seriously challenging Mitt Romney in this one-time swing state, and Koster is trying hard to avoid being linked to Obama and national Democrats.

Pennsylvania (R-held; shift from tossup): A Democrat hasn’t served as Pennsylvania’s AG since it became an elected post in 1980. But as Pennsylvania has moved in the Democrats’ direction on the presidential level, Kathleen Kane, the Democratic AG nominee and former assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County, has forged ahead of her Republican opponent -- Cumberland County DA David Freed, an elected prosecutor for the past seven years and the son-in-law of the state's first elected attorney general. Kane was ahead 33 percent to 27 percent (and 44 percent to 35 percent, including “leaning” voters) in a September Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll, and she maintains a fundraising edge, which is likely in part because of her endorsement from former President Bill Clinton. A significant subplot is the Penn State-Sandusky investigation. Kane has extensive experience prosecuting sex crimes, and she was a frequent commentator in the media on the Sandusky case. Not only was the case a huge issue in Pennsylvania, but GOP Gov. Tom Corbett oversaw the early stages of the investigation while he was serving as AG, to some subsequent dissatisfaction among voters. Corbett’s approval ratings have already been weak for a variety of reasons, but the fallout from his role in the Sandusky case could serve as grist for Kane and other Keystone State Democrats.

Safe Democratic

Oregon (D-held; no change in rating): Ellen Rosenblum -- a former federal prosecutor, trial court and state Court of Appeals judge -- easily won the Democratic primary in May and was appointed AG after Democratic incumbent John Kroger's surprise resignation to become president of Reed College. Rosenblum is now the prohibitive favorite over attorney James Buchal, who won the GOP nomination via a write-in campaign after no Republican filed for the office.

Vermont (D-held; shifts from lean Democratic): For awhile, Democratic AG William Sorrell seemed to be in danger of losing the post he's held since 1997. But Sorrell defeated a much younger Democrat, Chittenden County prosecutor T.J. Donovan, in the Democratic primary. Sorrell’s margin of victory was much narrower than pre-primary polls had indicated, but it will likely be enough to defeat Republican Jack McMullen, a frequent losing candidate in the state, in the general election. All Democrats should run well in this solidly blue state during a presidential election year.

North Carolina (D-held; no change in rating): Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has won three straight terms in a southern state, and now he has no Republican opposition. He’s a shoo-in for a fourth term.

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