Republicans on the Hot Seat in AG Races

Key GOP-held attorneys general seats are becoming more competitive, paving the way for Democrats to possibly flip their balance in the states.
by | February 2, 2018
Can Arizona AG Mark Brnovich, a Republican, overcome an energized Democratic and Latino vote to win a second term? (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

Democratic state attorneys general have been at a bit of a disadvantage this past decade: They hold 22 seats to the Republicans' 27, with one AG appointed by Alaska's independent governor. But come November, could their fortunes turn?

Judging by our first attempt to handicap the AG seats that are being contested in 2018, that's a distinct possibility. Republican AGs are on the hot seat this year, with several term-limited out or running for higher office.

In fact, of the 30 elected seats that are up this cycle, 18 are held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats. More critically, of those 30 seats being contested, we consider nine to be "in play," meaning they are rated tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. (Seats rated likely or safe for one party or the other are not considered in play at this point.) Of those nine in play seats, the Republicans currently hold seven.

Furthermore, six of the seven contests that we consider to be tossups are currently in GOP hands. They are the open AG offices in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio, plus the seat held by a Republican incumbent in Wisconsin. The one Democratic-held seat in the tossup category is an open seat in Connecticut.

In a neutral environment, this would suggest the Democrats could expect to gain a couple of seats on election night. But if there's a Democratic wave -- which is harder to predict than a wave in congressional races -- the Democrats might win even more than that, perhaps enough to turn an overall Republican lead in AG seats into a Democratic one.

As usual, we are rating the seats as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic.

In total, 43 seats are popularly elected and seven are either appointed by the governor, the legislature or state supreme court. We do not rate the appointed seats.

In the handicapping below the map, the seats within each category are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.

 

 
No Election
 
Safe Democratic
 
Likely Democratic
 
Lean Democratic
 
Tossup
 
Safe Republican
 
Likely Republican
 
Lean Republican

 
 

Safe Republican

Nebraska AG Doug Peterson (R)

With his first term under his belt, Peterson is almost ensured to see a second one. He doesn't have any serious opponents yet, either in the primary or the general election.

North Dakota AG Wayne Stenehjem (R)

Although Stenehjem hasn't announced whether he's running again, he is widely expected to do so. North Dakota leans strongly Republican and Stenehjem is popular, so if he runs he should easily win a sixth term.

Idaho AG Lawrence Wasden (R)

Wasden also hasn't announced whether he'll run for a fifth term. But like North Dakota, Idaho is a Republican state. So if Wasden does, he should be able to survive a primary and defeat any Democratic candidate.

Alabama AG Steve Marshall (R)

Marshall was appointed to the office by former Gov. Robert Bentley after his predecessor, Luther Strange, was tapped to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. But Marshall, a former Democrat who was previously a county prosecutor in northern Alabama, is not getting a free pass in June's Republican primary. The field is headed by Troy King, who himself was appointed to the attorney general post before being defeated in a primary by Strange. The GOP field also includes former chief deputy attorney general Alice Martin and attorney Chess Bedsole, who worked on Donald Trump's Alabama presidential campaign. Any Democrat would be an underdog in this race, even one named Chris Christie. The attorney is no relation to the former Republican New Jersey governor.

Arkansas AG Leslie Rutledge (R)

Democrats have not found a candidate so far to challenge Rutledge, who would be favored in this strongly Republican state.

Oklahoma AG Mike Hunter (R)

Hunter was appointed to succeed Scott Pruitt, who was tapped by President Trump to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hunter is a policy veteran, who previously served as a state legislator, secretary of state and top aide to former Republican U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts. Hunter is running for a full term, and in a state as solidly red as Oklahoma, he should be able to win without much trouble.

Kansas AG Derek Schmidt (R)

Despite two controversial terms under outgoing GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, don't expect the attorney general election to be a nail-biter. Schmidt, a leading moderate Republican in Kansas, is popular and well positioned to win a third term.

Georgia AG Chris Carr (R)

Carr was appointed to the post when Sam Olens was named president of Kennesaw State University. Carr is running for a term of his own, and while Democrats may be competitive in other Georgia races this year, there's no clear Democratic candidate yet for AG.

South Dakota: Open seat; AG Marty Jackley (R) is running for governor

In South Dakota, several Republicans are seeking the nomination for the open AG position. Whoever gets the nod -- they'll to be picked at a party convention -- would be a heavy favorite over the Democratic nominee, given the state's strong Republican leaning. One of the potential Democratic candidates, though, has an intriguing background: Tatewin Means is a former attorney general of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and daughter of the late American Indian activist Russell Means.

 

Likely Republican

South Carolina AG Alan Wilson (R)

While Wilson has more than $1 million in cash on hand, he has taken flak for his management of an ongoing statehouse corruption investigation. In his bid for a third term, Wilson faces two credible GOP primary opponents: State Rep. Todd Atwater and attorney William Herlong. There is no Democrat in the race yet. The best chance for Democrats would be to find a credible candidate and then run against a weakened Wilson in the fall.

Texas AG Ken Paxton (R)

Superficially, Paxton should be vulnerable: He is facing a trial for securities fraud. But this is solidly Republican Texas, and a final conviction by Election Day is unlikely. Meanwhile, Paxton, who doesn't have a primary challenger, has portrayed the prosecution as a liberal witch hunt, an argument that should resonate with the GOP base. For their part, the Democrats have a credible candidate -- trial lawyer Justin Nelson -- who has raised nearly $1 million, but that doesn't go too far in a statewide race in Texas. Ultimately, it looks like Paxton, despite his legal troubles, is positioned to ride Gov. Greg Abbott's coattails to reelection this year.

 

Lean Republican

Arizona AG Mark Brnovich (R)

Brnovich, who won his office in 2014 after defeating a Republican incumbent in the primary, starts with a money edge against former assistant attorney general and Obama administration official January Contreras. The question is whether an energized Democratic and Latino vote can deliver the office to Contreras, or whether Brnovich has demonstrated enough independence to win some crossover voters. He's pursued litigation against the Arizona Board of Regents over the cost of tuition at Arizona's three state universities. That said, there are a number of high-profile races in Arizona this election cycle, and the AG race is not one of them. So the result could be affected by trends further up the ballot.

 

Tossup

Ohio: Open seat; AG Mike DeWine (R) is running for governor

On the GOP side, state Auditor David Yost has a clear shot at the nomination. But former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach, a Democrat, should be able to run a credible race. This race will likely be influenced by top-of-the-ballot contests, including the open gubernatorial seat and a competitive U.S. Senate race; either AG nominee could get a boost from how those races develop, leaving us to rate this a tossup for now.

Michigan: Open seat; AG Bill Schuette (R) is running for governor

The Republican field includes state House Speaker Tom Leonard and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, while the Democrats have attorney Dana Nessel and former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles. The nominees will be chosen at state party conventions this summer, so it's premature to move this race -- an open seat in a swing state -- out of the tossup category.

Wisconsin AG Brad Schimel (R)

Schimel is seeking a second term; he faces Democrat Josh Kaul, a former federal prosecutor and first-time candidate who is the son of former Wisconsin AG Peg Lautenschlager. Both Schimel and Kaul should have enough money to be competitive. Wisconsin is one of the most politically polarized states. If the Democrats do as well as they did in a recent special election race -- one considered an early referendum on Trump's presidency -- this could be a strong pickup opportunity.

Florida: Open seat; AG Pam Bondi (R) is term-limited

The GOP field is led by former Tampa Circuit Judge Ashley Moody, who has Bondi's endorsement; other candidates include state Reps. Jay Fant, Ross Spano and Frank White. The Democratic field is headed by state Rep. Sean Shaw, the son of Leander Shaw, the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Another Democratic name being floated is Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, who is term limited. The open seat AG race will compete for attention with, and likely be affected by, other major races in Florida this cycle, including an open gubernatorial seat and a hotly contested U.S. Senate race.

Nevada: Open seat; AG Adam Laxalt (R) is running for governor

The faceoff is all but set: state Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, a Democrat, against former state Assemblyman and Deputy Attorney General Wes Duncan, a Republican. This is another open seat race in a swing state, with two credible candidates. We're rating it a tossup.

Colorado: Open seat; AG Cynthia Coffman (R) is running for governor

The only Republican candidate right now is George Brauchler, a well-known district attorney who prosecuted the Aurora mass shooting and a former gubernatorial candidate. The Democrats, meanwhile, have multiple candidates, including University of Colorado law school dean Phil Weiser, who previously held several Justice Department positions and clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a neutral political environment, Brauchler has the profile and the credibility to have a strong shot at winning, but if there's a national wave, the Democrats could have the edge.

Connecticut: Open seat; AG George Jepsen (D) is retiring

Unexpectedly, Jepsen is not running for another term. That leaves in the Democratic field: state Senate Judiciary Chair Paul Doyle, state House Judiciary Chair William Tong, state House General Law Chair Mike D'Agostino and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Mattei. There is no clear frontrunner yet. On the Republican side, former state Rep. John Shaban is running. Connecticut is a historically blue state, the Democratic base is energized nationally and the last Republican AG left office in 1959. On the other hand, Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy is finishing with low approval ratings, and the AG race could move in tandem with the race to succeed him, aiding Republican chances of flipping the seat.

 

Lean Democratic

Illinois: Open seat; AG Lisa Madigan (D) is not running for another term

With the departure of Madigan -- a political powerhouse from a dynastic family -- the field of AG hopefuls has swelled, mostly on the Democratic side. The Democratic field includes former Gov. Pat Quinn, who was ousted by Republican Bruce Rauner in 2014; state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who holds Barack Obama's former legislative seat; state Rep. Scott Drury; former Chicago Independent Police Review Authority Chair Sharon Fairley; Chicago Democratic Ward Committeeman Aaron Goldstein; Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering; Chicago Park District Board President Jesse Ruiz; and attorney Renato Mariotti. If a Democratic wave develops, it should benefit whoever the party's nominee is. That said, the Republicans have an intriguing frontrunner, former Miss America Erika Harold, a social conservative from downstate Urbana who graduated from Harvard Law School. If Harold gets past DuPage County Board Member Gary Grasso in the primary, as is expected, and if she draws a weaker Democratic nominee, she could have a shot.

 

Likely Democratic

Minnesota AG Lori Swanson (D)

Swanson has decided against running for governor, meaning she's likely to clear what had been a budding Democratic field to succeed her, and probably enable her to win reelection. If she'd vacated her seat, it would have a target for national Republicans; now, less so. Former state Rep. Doug Wardlow is in the hunt on the Republican side.

Delaware: Open seat; AG Matt Denn (D) is retiring

On the Democratic side, at least, there should be an energetic primary for this open seat. The field includes Deputy AG LaKresha Roberts and two former New Castle County officials, Kathleen Jennings and Tim Mullaney Sr. Both have experience in the AG's office. For her part, Jennings prosecuted the state's only known serial killer earlier in her career. The only candidate on the GOP side is attorney Tom Neuberger. In this solidly blue state, the Democrats will have a strong leg up.

 

Safe Democratic

Iowa AG Tom Miller (D)

With the exception of 1991 to 1995, Miller has been Iowa's attorney general since 1979. His last race in 2014 was relatively close by his standards: He bested Adam Gregg, who is now acting lieutenant governor, by 11 points. Barring something unforeseen, though, Miller should be good for another term.

New Mexico AG Hector Balderas (D)

The Republicans have a challenger in attorney Michael Hendricks, but political observers are expecting a good year for Democrats in New Mexico. Balderas should benefit.

Rhode Island: Open seat; AG Peter Kilmartin (D) is term-limited

The only contender so far is Peter Neronha, a former U.S. attorney for Rhode Island who stepped down when Obama left office. He's considered popular with voters for his efforts to fight political corruption in the state, and as a nonpartisan until 2017, he should have a measure of cross-partisan appeal. Others may eventually join the Democratic field, but Neronha's stature will be a deterrent. There is no Republican candidate yet.

Maryland AG Brian Frosh (D)

Frosh hasn't yet filed for reelection, but he is aggressively raising money and is expected to run. He also seems likely to avoid a primary. While there have been some strains between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Frosh, Hogan will have his hands full getting himself reelected in this solidly blue state. As a result, he's considered unlikely to spend political capital taking aim at Frosh.

New York AG Eric Schneiderman (D)

Schneiderman has run his office aggressively, including investigating Trump's personal businesses. There is no Republican candidate inside, and even if one emerges, Schneiderman is popular within all factions of his own party and with many swing voters. His reelection bid is being seen as a tune-up for the 2022 gubernatorial race; his two predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, used the AG post as a launching pad for the governorship.

Massachusetts AG Maura Healy (D)

Healy is popular and is expected to face only token opposition. Massachusetts has not elected a Republican to the AG office since 1966.

Vermont AG T.J. Donovan (D)

Donovan is completing his first term and should be safe. No one has indicated interest in the GOP nomination yet, and Donovan will have a big edge in this solidly blue state.

California AG Xavier Becerra (D)

Although a fellow Democrat is running -- State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones -- Becerra should be well-positioned to win a first full term. If he does, Becerra, who was appointed to succeed newly elected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, could become California's first appointed statewide official in decades to win the office to which he was appointed. Either way, California has become so strongly Democratic that the AG seat should be safe for the party.