The Can't Miss 2014 Downballot State Races

Though overshadowed by the gubernatorial and state legislative races, the contests for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and state school superintendent can be high-stakes battles.
by | November 3, 2014

With the midterm elections here, it's time for a last-minute review of races typically overshadwed by the big contests for governor and the U.S. Congress. You know, the lower-profile ones such as lieutenant governor, secretary of state and chief state education officer. Here is our viewer's guide to a handful of downballot state contests.

Lieutenant Governor

Not counting states where lieutenant governor candidates run on a ticket with a gubernatorial candidate, there are 11 distinct lieutenant governor elections this year: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont.

Of those races, four are competitive or potentially competitive: Arkansas, Georgia, Nevada and Rhode Island. In Arkansas, GOP Rep. Tim Griffin and Democrat John Burkhalter, a state highway commissioner and real estate developer, are running neck and neck. Similarly, Rhode Island's open-seat contest is especially competitive. Initially not on the radar screen, it's up for grabs due to some unusual conditions in the gubernatorial race. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gina Raimondo's past work as state treasurer has alienated labor unions, a reality that has helped Republican gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung pull even in this generally Democratic state. That fallout has hampered Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Dan McKee: The executive board of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO voted unanimously to back Republican Catherine Taylor instead for lieutenant governor, the first time the union had backed a Republican in almost three decades. With the gubernatorial race in flux, this contest is too close to call.

Georgia and Nevada both have the potential to be competitive. Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has an edge over Democrat Connie Stokes, but stronger-than-expected showings by Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn and Democratic gubernatorial challenger Jason Carter make this race worth watching. Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Mark Hutchison in Nevada is getting a boost from incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval's shoo-in bid for re-election. He is now favored in the open-seat race for lieutenant governor against Democratic state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores.

The remaining seven lieutenant governor races are not expected to be competitive. Alabama Republican Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey is the heavy favorite to win a new term against Democratic former state Rep. James C. Fields; running alongside heavy gubernatorial favorite Jerry Brown, California Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will have no problem defeating Republican Ron Nehring; Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little is favored to win another term over Democratic challenger Bert Marley; and Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb is heavily favored to win a second term against Democratic restauranteur Cathy Cummings.

In South Carolina, Republican Henry McMaster, a former state attorney general and ex-state GOP chairman, is the favorite over Democratic state Rep. Bakari Sellers, the son of a prominent civil rights activist who now serves as president of historically black Voorhees College. This will be the last time South Carolina elects an LG separately from the governor; a constitutional amendment enacted in 2012 changes the rules to a ticket system beginning in 2018.

Tea Party-aligned Texas Sen. Dan Patrick is running hard to the ideological right, but in solidly Republican Texas, he should still be able to defeat a better-than-average Democratic candidate, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte. If Patrick wins, the impact on state politics could be dramatic. Texas' LG is famously powerful -- controlling the Senate's agenda, its committee structure and its rules, as well as playing a major role in crafting the state budget. Patrick is expected to boost the leverage of the Tea Party legislators he's been most closely affiliated with, even though the chamber has had a tradition of consensus.

Finally, incumbent Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a moderate Republican who's been able to win a substantial number of crossover votes in a solidly blue state, is the heavy favorite to win another two-year term. Scott has a construction company and drives a race car, making him well-known statewide. He is expected to get a credible challenge from Dean Corren, a former state representative from the left-leaning Progressive Party. Corren is poised to receive $200,000 in public financing, which is a significant amount for a downballot race in a small-market state.

Secretary of State

These contests have become hotly contested given the role the offices can play in voting rights issues and ballot-related decisions. Currently, the GOP holds 28 of the 47 secretary of state offices (three states have elected lieutenant governors who handle electoral duties instead). More specifically, Republicans occupy 23 of the 39 secretary of state offices chosen by voters as eight secretaries of state are appointed by the governor and three are picked by state legislatures. The GOP has held a majority of offices since the 2010 cycle, though this means that Republicans have about twice as many seats to defend in 2014 as Democrats do.

In all, 15 states are competitive. Of those, six are open seats: Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota and Nevada. Three of these are held by Democrats, and three by Republicans. The remaining nine seats are occupied by incumbents. All but two of these seats -- Massachusetts and Wisconsin -- are held by Republicans: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio. Here's a rundown of the 15 contests:

Republican Arizona Sen. Michele Reagan and Democratic former attorney general Terry Goddard are locked in a tight race.

Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin, a Republican, is in a competitive race against state Board of Election commissioner Susan Inman, a Democrat.

In a state where Democrats are dominating statewide contests this year, California Republican Pete Peterson, a professor, is running a surprisingly credible race against Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla.

Though Colorado hasn't elected a Democratic secretary of state since 1954, Democrat Joe Neguse and Republican Wayne Williams are in a competitive contest.

Republican incumbent Brian Kemp, like Georgia GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, is facing a more-competitive-than-expected race for re-election. Kemp is being challenged by Democrat Doreen Carter.

Marion County Clerk Beth White gives Indiana Democrats their best shot at a statewide win in her race against appointed Republican incumbent Connie Lawson, a former state Senate majority leader.

In this open-seat race, Republican Paul Pate, a former Cedar Rapids, Iowa, mayor and one-term secretary of state, faces Democrat Brad Anderson, a Democrat who was an aide to former Gov. Chet Culver. Polls show the race close.

The nation's highest-profile secretary of state race may be in Kansas -- a state in the midst of a moderate vs. conservative Republican split. Staunchly conservative incumbent Kris Kobach is fighting for his political life against Democrat Jean Schodorf, who had been a Republican legislator as recently as 2012. Kobach has been at the center of voting rights and immigration policies that Democrats loathe, and they would love nothing more than to take him down.

Long-serving Democratic incumbent Bill Galvin remains the favorite in Massachusetts, a solidly blue state. Still, Republican Dave D'Arcangelo, who's legally blind, is running a spirited challenge at a time when a Republican, Charlie Baker, has a serious shot at winning the open-seat governorship.

Incumbent Republican Ruth Johnson is favored over Democratic attorney Godfrey Dillard in Michigan, but the contest is reasonably competitive.

Though Minnesota Democrats are favored in key statewide races this year, Democrat Steve Simon is in a competitive race against Republican Dan Severson. A wild card is Independence Party candidate Bob Helland, who could draw in the high single digits.

Democratic Nevada treasurer Kate Marshall is modestly favored in a competitive race against GOP state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, bucking GOP leads in the gubernatorial and lieutenant governor race.

Republican incumbent Dianna Duran and Democratic Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Garcén Toulouse Oliver are neck and neck in New Mexico.

Ohio Republican incumbent Jon Husted is favored over Democratic state Sen. Nina Turner.

In highly competitive and ideologically polarized Wisconsin, Democratic incumbent Doug LaFollette is locked in a battle against Republican Julian Bradley.

In addition, there are four other state races worth keeping an eye on that could affect secretaries of state indirectly. Two are vulnerable gubernatorial seats currently held by the GOP that have the power to appoint the secretary of state -- Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott is vulnerable to Democrat Charlie Crist, and Pennsylvania, where Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is an underdog against Democratic challenger Tom Wolf.

In Alaska, where the lieutenant governor handles secretary of state duties, Anchorage Mayor Daniel A. Sullivan, a Republican, is running alongside incumbent GOP Gov. Sean Parnell against a fusion ticket of Independent Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott. The gubernatorial race is considered a tossup. (Confusingly, Daniel S. Sullivan, a former state attorney general and commissioner of natural resources, is the Republican taking on U.S. Sen. Mark Begich in another tight race.)

And in Maine, control of the legislature is up for grabs; the legislature appoints the secretary of state.

State School Superintendent

Superintendent positions are particularly controversial these days because of fights over Common Core State Standards, which some conservatives and a few liberals oppose. Elections to be held for chief state school officers this year include one seat currently held by a Democrat in California, and six seats held by Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming. Strikingly, Democrats are competitive in all but one (South Carolina) of these six races in these solidly Republican states.

In Arizona, Republican John Huppenthal, elected by the voters in 2010, lost a primary amid controversy over anonymous online remarks he had made. The GOP nominee is Diane Douglas, a Common Core opponent. She faces Democrat David Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University who has served as the state's associate superintendent of public instruction for standards and accountability. Garcia has won a fair amount of cross-party support, but the state leands Republican. This race is highly competitive.

California incumbent Tom Torlakson faces Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive. Both are Democrats, but are officially nonpartisan. The race has become something of a battle between teachers unions and charter-school minded education reformers. Polls show a close contest.

Outgoing Republican Superintendent John Barge has made a cross-party endorsement of Democrat Valarie Wilson, the former president of the Georgia School Boards Association, over Republican Common Core opponent Richard Woods. The race is tight.

Even in conservative Idaho, outgoing Republican Superintendent Tom Luna has been controversial for going too far to oppose teachers unions. This year, Republican principal Sherri Ybarra is locked in a tight open-seat race against former deputy superintendent Jana Jones, a Democrat.

Oklahoma Republican Superintendent Janet Barresi lost a primary for a second term after pursuing an aggressive agenda that ruffled feathers. The GOP nominee is Joy Hofmeister, a former state board of education member. She faces superintendent John Cox, a Democrat. The race is a dead heat -- far closer than the other statewide races this year in Oklahoma, a solidly Republican state.

Until 2010, South Carolina, despite being solidly conservative, had a long run of Democratic school superintendents. But in this open-seat contest, Republican Molly Spearman is favored over Democrat Tom Thompson.

After a highly controversial tenure by Republican superintendent Cindy Hill, the Wyoming open-seat contest pits teacher Jillian Balow, a Republican, against Mike Ceballos, a Democrat. Ceballos is credible and reasonably well-funded, but it's unclear if he can win in such a solidly Republican state.

In addition, several governorships up this year appoint the chief state school officer. They include four governorships currently held by a Democrat -- Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Vermont -- and eight currently held by a Republican -- Iowa, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. Of these, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and Pennsylvania are most vulnerable to a party switch.

Governorships that appoint a majority of the state school board, which in turn chooses the chief state school officer, involve six states where the seat is held by a Democrat -- Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- and three states where the seat is held by a Republican --Alaska, Florida and Nebraska. Of these, all are considered competitive gubernatorial races except for Nebraska.

Finally, in Michigan, the state board of education chooses the chief state school officer, and the board itself is directly elected by the voters.