Predictions for November's Attorney General Races

Four contests are competitive, giving Republicans a chance to flip three seats.
by | September 28, 2016
Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, at the podium, faces GOP state Sen. John Rafferty, who's also from Montgomery County, in Pennsylvania's November election. (FlickrCC/Montgomery County Planning Commission)

State attorney general contests aren't the biggest attention grabbers during a presidential election year. But that hasn't kept some of them from being competitive.

Our latest handicapping, the first since March, shows a balanced set of races. Four of November's 10 contests are considered competitive: a lean Republican race in West Virginia, tossup contests in Missouri and North Carolina and a lean Democratic race in Pennsylvania.

Of these, the candidates in Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are vying for Democratic-held open seats, while West Virginia's contest features a vulnerable Republican incumbent.

Nationally, the GOP holds 27 AG offices and the Democrats hold 23. If the GOP can run the table of competitive races -- holding the West Virginia seat and flipping Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania -- its national lead in AG offices would jump to a dominating 30-20. But in the absence of a strong national partisan tide, the GOP stands to gain a seat or two.

Democrats, by contrast, look likely to have a shot, at best, of making a net gain of one seat.

Since our last predictions, three races have moved modestly in the Democratic direction: Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia. Meanwhile, the contest in Indiana has moved in the GOP's direction.

Two GOP-held seats remain in the safe Republican category (Montana and Utah), while two Democratic-held seats remain in the safe Democratic category (Oregon and Washington).

As always, we have categorized the races as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic. In the handicapping below, the seats are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.

Safe Republican

Utah AG Sean Reyes (R)

Reyes, a Mormon Republican of Filipino and Hispanic descent, belatedly and briefly got a Democratic opponent, Jon Harper. But Harper dropped out of the race this month, citing health reasons. His departure came too late for the party to replace him on the ballot, though Libertarian Andrew McCullough is still in the race. Even before Harper's exit, Reyes was far ahead in polls; he remains the safest Republican AG in the country.

Montana AG Tim Fox (R)

Fox, like Reyes, got a Democratic opponent relatively late in the campaign. But Larry Jent, a former state senator and attorney, hasn't been able to significantly change the dynamics of the race. Fox remains a strong favorite and, despite his party affiliation, has been endorsed by the state's largest public-sector union, the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers.

Likely Republican

Indiana: Open seat; AG Greg Zoeller (R) running for Congress (shifts from lean Republican)

Indiana's AG race continues its drift in the GOP's direction. Elkhart County prosecutor Curtis Hill Jr. won a primary that included former Republican AG Steve Carter, two-term state Sen. Randy Head, and Abigail Kuzma, an official from the AG's office. Republicans have united behind Hill, who's outraised the Democratic nominee, retired judge Lorenzo Arredondo. Arredondo was the longest serving elected Latino state trial judge in the country when he retired from the bench in 2010. Donald Trump is strong in Indiana, and Democrats are focusing their down-ballot efforts on winning the open gubernatorial and U.S. Senate seats, as well as on protecting the incumbent Democratic state schools superintendent.

Lean Republican

West Virginia AG Patrick Morrisey (R) (shifts from likely Republican)

There's wide agreement that this race -- pitting Morrisey, a first-term Republican, against Democratic Del. Doug Reynolds -- has tightened in recent months, thanks in part to Reynolds' aggressive spending. Trump is polling very well in West Virginia, a factor that should help Morrisey. But Democrats hope that their competitive, self-funding gubernatorial nominee, Jim Justice, could blunt that down-ballot edge and boost Reynolds' prospects. Morrisey is still a modest favorite. With this handicapping, though, the contest slips into the competitive category.

Tossup

Missouri: Open seat; AG Chris Koster (D) running for governor

The low-profile primaries for this open seat contest are done and the candidates in the general election are former Cass County prosecutor Teresa Hensley, a Democrat, and Republican Josh Hawley, a University of Missouri law professor and onetime clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The open-seat gubernatorial race and a competitive U.S. Senate contest will overshadow the AG contest. Observers expect the race to get carried along by whatever tides develop in higher races on the ballot, so we're keeping it at tossup for now.

North Carolina: Open seat; AG Roy Cooper (D) running for governor

North Carolina has become one of the most important presidential battlegrounds, and it's also home to a hard fought gubernatorial and U.S. Senate race. This has drawn increasing attention and money to the state, and the lower-profile AG race could see an impact. Democratic state Sen. Josh Stein, who worked in the AG's office earlier in his career as deputy attorney general for consumer protection, has been outraising Republican state Sen. Buck Newton. Newton was a key sponsor of HB2 -- the controversial "bathroom bill" -- in the state Senate, so the ongoing fight over that legislation could hurt him with some voters. A late September poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found Stein four points ahead of Newton. The conservative-leaning Civitas poll, for its part, found Stein up by two. With lots of undecided voters, the race will likely be shaped by the overall tide on Election Day, which remains very much in doubt.

Lean Democratic

Pennsylvania: Open seat; AG Kathleen Kane (D) not seeking another term (shifts from tossup)

Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro won a spirited Democratic primary to succeed the scandal-ridden Kane. He now faces GOP state Sen. John Rafferty, who's also from Montgomery County. While Kane's travails could be a problem for Shapiro, the Democratic nominee is considered clean, and his strong fundraising skills helped him win an impressive primary victory. In addition, Democrats maintain a slight edge in the presidential race in the state -- a factor that ultimately could outweigh all the others. This contest remains competitive, especially if GOP fortunes at the top of the ticket improve as Election Day nears. But for now Shapiro has a bit of an edge.

Safe Democratic

Vermont: Open seat; AG Bill Sorrell (D) retiring (shift from likely Democratic)

This open seat -- created by the retirement of Sorrell, who has held the post since his 1997 appointment -- has shifted in the Democrats' direction, even though the GOP managed to recruit a small-town private-practice attorney named Deborah Bucknam. The challenge is that Bucknam is a political novice and much less well-known than Democrat T.J. Donovan, the state's attorney for Chittenden County, the state's largest. Donovan has far outraised his GOP opponent, and the state Republican Party's efforts will be focused on electing Phil Scott to the governorship and on gaining ground in the Democratic-controlled legislature. In Vermont, in most other ways a solidly blue state, the GOP doesn't have many spare resources to put into the AG race. So we're moving this contest to Safe Democratic.

Oregon: AG Ellen Rosenblum (D)

Democratic incumbent Ellen Rosenblum is seeking a second full term. Following stints as a judge for the Oregon Court of Appeals and as an assistant U.S. attorney, she was appointed AG in June 2012 to complete the final six months of her predecessor's term. After some uncertainty about whether she would face a GOP challenger, Rosenblum now faces off with Daniel Crowe, a onetime judge advocate in the Army and more recently a public defender in the Portland area. Crowe has taken some shots at Rosenbaum's 2013 decision not to defend Oregon's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, as well as her 2015 decision to defer her agency's investigation of former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber in an influence-peddling scandal to the feds. Despite all this, Rosenblum is strongly favored to win.

Washington state: AG Bob Ferguson (D)

Ferguson, a former King County council member, has no Republican opponent, only Libertarian attorney Joshua Trumbull. Ferguson is considered such a safe bet for re-election that some of his supporters have begun to focus instead on a possible bid for the 2020 gubernatorial nomination.