AG Races Shift in Democrats’ Favor

The GOP is at risk of losing nine seats, while Democrats could lose three. If there's a big Democratic wave, Republicans could lose their majority.
by | October 26, 2018
Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, a candidate for AG, is facing allegations of domestic abuse, creating an opening for his Republican opponent. (TNS/Craig Lassig)

It’s been four months since our last handicapping of the nation's attorney general races, and like our other ratings, things continue to move in the Democrats’ favor.

Currently, the GOP holds 27 attorneys general offices, the Democrats hold 22 and there is one nonpartisan seat appointed by Alaska's independent governor. Of those, 30 elected seats are up this cycle -- 18 held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats.

Our reporting suggests that 12 races are in play, meaning they are rated tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. We rate races as either tossup, lean Democratic or Republican, likely Democratic or Republican, or safe Democratic or Republican.

That’s an increase of two seats from our June ratings, thanks to the shift of two GOP-held seats in the Democrats’ direction -- Georgia and South Carolina -- from likely Republican to lean Republican.

All told, of the 12 vulnerable seats we’ve identified, the Republicans currently hold nine of them: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin. The only Democratic-held seats in significant danger are those in Connecticut, Illinois and Minnesota.

Six of our seven tossup seats are currently held by Republicans, with just one -- Minnesota -- held by the Democrats.

The most notable shift in Republicans’ direction is in Minnesota, where Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison is facing allegations of domestic abuse, creating an opening for Republican Doug Wardlow in what would otherwise be a seat the Democrats should hold. The race has shifted from lean Democratic to tossup.

We’re also moving Maryland toward Republicans. Democrat Brian Frosh is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from Republican Craig Wolf. This race shifts from safe Democratic to likely Democratic.

In a neutral environment, the Democrats could expect to gain a couple of seats. But if there's a Democratic wave, the party might win even more than that, perhaps enough to turn an overall Republican lead in AG seats into a Democratic one.

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.

 

 

Safe Republican

Nebraska AG Doug Peterson (R)

Peterson is running unopposed.

Idaho AG Lawrence Wasden (R)

Not only is Idaho solidly red, but Wasden is popular. He’s expected to cruise to a fifth term against Democrat Bruce Bistline.

North Dakota AG Wayne Stenehjem (R)

North Dakota leans strongly Republican, and Stenehjem is popular. He is expected to easily beat Democrat David Clark Thompson, a former state legislative aide and attorney in private practice.

Arkansas AG Leslie Rutledge (R)

Democrat Mike Lee, an engineer, lawyer and law school professor, has run an aggressive race against Rutledge. But as far as observers in the state can tell, his message hasn’t broken through to any significant degree. The incumbent remains the favorite 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. Despite facing an ugly primary fight, he is still heavily favored to defeat Democratic attorney Mark Myles in this red state.

Kansas AG Derek Schmidt (R)

Schmidt, who straddles his party's moderate-conservative divide, is popular with constituents. Despite tight races in the gubernatorial and secretary of state contests, Schmidt is well-positioned to win a third term over Democratic attorney Sarah Swain.

South Dakota: Open seat; AG Marty Jackley (R) ran unsuccessfully for governor

Both parties have credible candidates with military and legal backgrounds, Republican Jason Ravnsborg and Democrat Randy Seiler. But despite an unexpectedly competitive gubernatorial race in the state, Ravnsborg is the heavy favorite for November in this strongly Republican state.

Alabama AG Steve Marshall (R)

Marshall was appointed by former Gov. Robert Bentley after his predecessor, Luther Strange, was tapped to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. Marshall defeated former Attorney General Troy King in a runoff and now faces a Democrat with a familiar name: Joseph Siegelman, the son of former Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman. The younger Siegelman has run a strong campaign, but his father remains a polarizing figure who’s unpopular with the state’s Republican majority. Marshall is the heavy favorite.

Texas AG Ken Paxton (R)

Paxton, despite longstanding legal troubles, remains positioned to ride Gov. Greg Abbott's coattails to reelection. That said, his Democratic opponent, trial lawyer Justin Nelson, has exceeded expectations. He’s raised more than $2 million and is running what’s considered to be the second-best campaign of any statewide Democratic candidate in Texas this year, behind U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. But in a state as big and red as Texas, the incumbent remains the favorite.

 

Lean Republican

Arizona AG Mark Brnovich (R)

Brnovich, who won his office in 2014 after defeating a Republican incumbent in the primary, faces a tough challenge from former assistant attorney general and Obama administration official January Contreras. But while Arizona is a heavily contested state this fall, Brnovich has the edge. An ABC15 Arizona/OH Predictive Insights poll found Brnovich leading Contreras by 22 points, and a poll by Data Orbital had him up by 13. Brnovich has also been endorsed by The Arizona Republic.

South Carolina AG Alan Wilson (R); shift from likely Republican

Wilson, who's seeking a third term, was cited in a grand jury report in a long-running statehouse corruption probe that concluded that his "actions impeded this investigation." But political observers believe that the Democratic candidate, Charleston School of Law professor Constance Anastopoulo, won’t be able to capitalize, lacking name recognition, funds and campaign experience. We’re moving this race to lean Republican as a precaution, but we expect the state’s strong Republican slant to win Wilson a new term.

Georgia AG Chris Carr (R); shift from Likely Republican

Carr was appointed to the post in 2016 when Sam Olens was named president of Kennesaw State University; he’s now running for a term of his own. He faces Democrat Charlie Bailey, a former senior prosecutor in Fulton County. Neither candidate has been elected to public office before, and the gubernatorial race between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams is close, with a potential for atypical turnout patterns. The state’s historical GOP lean gives Carr an edge, but the contest is competitive.

 

Tossup

Wisconsin AG Brad Schimel (R)

Schimel is seeking a second term and faces Democrat Josh Kaul, a former federal prosecutor and first-time candidate. Kaul, who is the son of previous Wisconsin AG Peg Lautenschlager, has had difficulty breaking through in a busy election year in Wisconsin, but he benefits from energized Democratic hopes. The Marquette University Law School poll had Schimel up by a margin in the low-to-mid single digits.

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

Republican state House Speaker Tom Leonard faces Democratic attorney Dana Nessel. Nessel started with a double-digit lead following the two major parties' August nominating conventions, but Leonard has narrowed the deficit to a near-tie in recent polls. He’s capitalized on Nessel’s record of representing a variety of controversial defendants, as well as accusations by several ex-staffers that she has fostered a toxic climate in her campaign. Complicating matters for Leonard is that there’s a Libertarian candidate in the race who could siphon votes away from him.

For her part, Nessel has attacked Leonard for being too close to corporate interests. If Nessel pulls this out, it will be because of a general Democratic wave in the state.

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

Former Tampa Circuit Judge Ashley Moody faces state Rep. Sean Shaw, the son of Leander Shaw, the first black chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. The open-seat AG race is competing for attention with high-profile gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races, but it offers a sharp contrast.

Moody would continue in Bondi's footsteps by supporting President Trump and pursuing a conservative agenda; Shaw would investigate Trump's financial dealings in the state and would challenge Republican priorities, such as a lawsuit against Obamacare. Moody has a roughly 2-to-1 money advantage, but polls have shown a close race. Shaw is hoping for a boost from Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, who has a small lead.

Minnesota: Open seat; AG Lori Swanson (D) is running for governor (shift from lean Democratic)

No AG race in the country has experienced more upheaval than this one, which pits Democratic National Committee Vice Chair and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison against former Republican state Rep. Doug Wardlow. Ellison’s late-launching campaign was rocked by allegations of domestic abuse, which has put a damper on his bid. The question is whether Wardlow -- who’s no moderate -- can capitalize. A recent poll had Wardlow leading Ellison by a mid-single-digit margin.

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

Republican state Auditor David Yost faces Democratic former U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach. Yost has used his role as state auditor to push for state takeovers of financially and academically troubled public schools and led an investigation into irregularities at a charter "e-school" that was shuttered earlier this year.

Dettelbach, for his part, handled high-profile oversight of Cleveland's police department as well as prosecuting terrorism cases.

Polling in the race has been close, with each candidate sometimes in the lead. Whoever wins the tight gubernatorial race might carry one of these candidates over the finish line.

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

State Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, a Democrat, faces former state Assemblyman and Deputy Attorney General Wes Duncan, a Republican. Polls have shown the race close, with lots of undecided voters. As with other AG contests this year, the winner of the close gubernatorial race will likely determine the victor.

Colorado: Open seat; AG Cynthia Coffman (R) is not running for releection

Republican George Brauchler, a well-known district attorney who prosecuted the Aurora mass shooting and previously ran for governor, is in a competitive race with 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. Both candidates are well-funded, including significant money from out of state. The Democrats have maintained an edge in the gubernatorial race, but this evenly matched AG race is more competitive.

 

Lean Democratic

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

Democrat Kwame Raoul, a state senator from Chicago, faces Republican Erika Harold, a socially conservative Harvard Law School grad and former Miss America. Neither candidate has run statewide before. Republicans have some hope of winning, but Democrats have a modest edge in this blue state in a blue year.

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

State House Judiciary Chair William Tong, a Democrat, faces Susan Hatfield, a Republican state prosecutor. Both have relevant experience: Tong has worked with complex civil litigation matters for a boutique litigation firm, and Hatfield handles criminal matters in state court. But Tong has argued he’s better suited to the job given that the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office handles almost exclusively civil matters. Given that Connecticut is a blue state and the last Republican AG left office in 1959, this contest leans Democratic.

 

Likely Democratic

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

Democratic nominee Kathleen Jennings enjoys some name recognition thanks to the trial of serial killer Steven Pennell in 1989. The Republicans’ last-minute replacement after their initial candidate dropped out is Bernard Pepukayi, a former Democrat with almost no name recognition. The contest has been largely below the radar, which all but ensures that Jennings wins given the overall Democratic lean of the state.

Maryland AG Brian Frosh (D) (shift from safe Democratic)

Attorney General Brian Frosh, who's seeking a second term, faces Republican Craig Wolf, a major in the Army Reserves who is leaving the presidency of a D.C.-based trade association to run. Wolf has been endorsed by GOP Gov. Larry Hogan, and Hogan's 20-point lead in the polls has left him freer to boost other candidates. The most recent poll had Frosh ahead by nine points, making this a closer race than expected. Frosh is running ads that tout his initiatives to crack down on opioid abuse and street crime -- an apparent effort to counter Wolf’s ad in the Baltimore market that features several African-Americans criticizing Frosh.

New York: Open seat; AG Eric Schneiderman (D) resigned

Schneiderman resigned after accusations of domestic violence surfaced. Schneiderman's replacement, Barbara Underwood, chose not to run for a term of her own, leaving the path open for New York City Public Advocate Tish James.

Meanwhile, Republicans have turned to Keith Wofford, co-managing partner of the law firm Ropes & Gray. Wofford’s interesting backstory -- he’s is African-American and grew up poor -- has helped him fundraise. This is a Democratic state in a Democratic year, so James remains the heavy favorite.

 

Safe Democratic

New Mexico AG Hector Balderas (D)

Republican attorney Michael Hendricks will have trouble knocking off incumbent Balderas, particularly since Libertarian Blair Dunn is poised to split the anti-incumbent vote.

Massachusetts AG Maura Healy (D)

Healy is popular and is poised to face only token opposition from Trump-aligned Republican attorney James McMahon. Massachusetts has not elected a Republican to the AG office since 1966.

Iowa AG Tom Miller (D)

With the exception of four years in the 1990s, Miller has been Iowa's attorney general since 1979. He has no Republican opponent, only Libertarian Marco Battaglia. Miller should be safe for another term.

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

Democrat Peter Neronha, a former U.S. attorney for Rhode Island who stepped down when President Barack Obama left office, has no major party opponent. His victory is assured.

Vermont AG T.J. Donovan (D)

Donovan, who’s completing his first term, faces Janssen Willhoit, a former state legislator who was chosen by the GOP state committee after the primary winner, Brooke Paige, withdrew from the AG race. Regardless of his opponent, Donovan is likely on his way to a second term in this blue state.

California AG Xavier Becerra (D)

Becerra faces Republican Steven Bailey, a former superior court judge and critic of the state's sanctuary laws. Bailey is a stronger candidate than some California Republicans running statewide, but his party identification is out of step with this solidly blue state.