Politics

The Race for Attorney General Tightens Up in 9 States

With one month to go, the Democrats and Republicans are in a dead heat to win the most seats.
by | October 2, 2014

Since we last looked at this November's state attorneys general contests, the battlefield has gotten a bit more competitive. Like this year's gubernatorial races, Democratic AGs have a very slight edge.

Currently, the Democrats hold 26 seats to the Republicans 24. Their lead in popularly elected AGs is narrower -- 22 seats to 21. But the Republicans have more AG seats to defend -- 17, compared to 14 for the Democrats. And among the 11 seats that are competitive, the GOP currently holds seven of them, compared to just four for the Democrats.

In the course of this analysis, we’ve changed the rating in nine races -- five of which moved in the Democrats direction (Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas and Utah) and four of which moved in the GOP’s direction (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and New York).

Of these nine contests, the most significant ones include two seats that moved in the Democrats’ direction and three that moved in the GOP's. For the Democrats, Georgia and Utah are newly competitive. In Utah, the prosecution of two consecutive Republican AGs has given Democrats an opening in the solidly red state.

Meanwhile, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico are increasingly competitive for the GOP. The Colorado race moves from tossup to lean Republican; the New Mexico race shifts from lean Democratic to tossup; and the Nevada race shifts from likely Democratic to lean Democratic.

This state of play suggests that the possible outcomes on Election Night could result in a gain of three seats for the Republicans and a gain of five seats for the Democrats. If there’s no discernible partisan wave in AG races this year, then the Democrats stand to gain a seat or two -- the same projection we made nine months ago.

It’s worth remembering that not every state elects their AG. Seven states have attorneys general that are appointed. Theoretically, a change in the positions that appoint the AGs could shift the partisan balance in 2014. At this point, though, we don’t see many opportunities for these seven seats to shift.

There are 31 AG races this year. They are categorized below as being either safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic. In addition, in the handicapping below, the seats are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.

Safe Republican

Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt (R)

Pruitt doesn't have an opponent; his re-election in November will be a mere formality.

South Dakota AG Marty Jackley (R)

Jackley, who was elected to a full term in 2010, faces only a libertarian challenger. He remains a sure bet.

North Dakota AG Wayne Stenehjem (R)

Stenehjem has won four AG elections in North Dakota. He should be a lock for another term against Democrat Kiara Kraus-Parr.

Idaho AG Lawrence Wasden (R)

Wasden has a challenger -- Bruce Bistline -- but the Democrat has made little noise in the race. Wasden, first elected in 2002, should have no trouble winning another term in this solidly red state.

South Carolina AG Alan Wilson (R)

Wilson, elected in 2010, has continued to avoid the kind of flak that has made GOP Gov. Nikki Haley's bid for a second term something short of a cakewalk in this very red state. Wilson faces Democrat Parnell Diggs. Diggs has a compelling biography; he was born blind, was a varsity wrestler in college, briefly made a living as a lounge singer and was a practicing lawyer for nearly two decades. Still, Wilson should be able to win easily.

Nebraska: Open seat; held by Jon Bruning (R)

After three terms, Bruning made an unsuccessful run for governor. The race to succeed him pits Republican Doug Peterson against Democrat Janet Stewart. Peterson is the heavy favorite.

Kansas AG Derek Schmidt (R)

The slow-motion implosion of Kansas Republicans has been one of the signature political stories of 2014, but Schmidt -- unlike Gov. Sam Brownback, Sen. Pat Roberts and Secretary of State Kris Kobach -- has somehow managed to avoid friction in his quest for a second term. Compared to other Republican statewide elected officials in Kansas, Schmidt has continued to maintain support from both moderates and conservatives. Democrat A.J. Kotich, an ex-Marine who held a variety of legal positions in Kansas state government, faces an uphill climb in trying to oust Schmidt. A September poll by Public Policy Polling had Schmidt leading, 50 percent to 27 percent.

Likely Republican

Texas: Open seat; held by Greg Abbott (R) (Shift from safe Republican)

State Sen. Ken Paxton, arguably the most conservative of three major candidates in the open-seat GOP primary, is running a low-risk, low-profile campaign against a little-known Democrat with the memorable name Sam Houston. Observers say Paxton's admission to violating the Texas Securities Act is a potential electoral liability, though not one that Houston will easily be able to exploit. That’s because having “Republican” on the ballot line has been enough to insure victory for every GOP candidate since 1994.

Alabama AG Luther Strange (R) (Shift from safe Republican)

Turmoil within the AG office under Strange has recently made headlines, including the suspension of a deputy attorney general. Strange’s Democratic opponent, state Rep. Joe Hubbard, has tried to leverage this friction as an issue in the campaign, but Alabama is such a strongly Republican state that it’s not clear it will be enough to make a difference in the outcome.

Ohio AG Mike DeWine (R)

Former Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper was already a decided underdog against DeWine, but the self-destruction of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald has become an albatross for the party’s down-ballot candidates. DeWine is up by a 2-to-1 margin in a publicly released GOP poll, and Democrats aren’t releasing internal poll results. Were it not for Pepper’s access to money, the race would be over.

Lean Republican

Georgia AG Sam Olens (R) (Shift from safe Republican)

Olens seemed poised for an easy re-election in strongly Republican Georgia, but his quest for a second term has become closer than most would have predicted. Part of this stems from the Democrats’ surprisingly competitive position in top-of-the ballot races for Senate and governor, which could give a boost to little-known Democrat Greg Hecht, the former state senator challenging Olens. Another challenge for the incumbent concerns questions about his office’s handling of certain documents related to a high-profile ethics case involving vulnerable GOP Gov. Nathan Deal. A September poll had Olens up by 7 p ercentage points.

Utah AG Sean Reyes (R) (Shift from safe Republican)

Reyes is picking up the pieces after two Republican AGs -- John Swallow and Mark Shurtleff -- were charged with various counts of public corruption. Reyes has outraised Democrat Charles Stormont, and ordinarily, Utah’s AG office should be a lock for Republicans, but the legal problems of Reyes’ predecessors could give Democrats an opportunity.

Michigan AG Bill Schuette (R)

In this blue-to-purple state, Republican Schuette faces Mark Totten, a Kalamazoo attorney who is on the faculty of the Michigan State University School of Law. Schuette is still the favorite and has a tremendous cash advantage, but he's been on the wrong side of popular opinion on two key issues. He's led Michigan's fight against same-sex marriage and he's fought to restrict the state's medical marijuana law. Totten has been unexpectedly competitive in polls. Schuette remains a modest favorite, but if Democrats have a good election day at the top of the ballot -- there are competitive gubernatorial and Senate races on tap this year -- Totten has a chance of pulling it out.

Florida AG Pam Bondi (R)

Bondi, elected in the strong Republican year of 2010, faces a competitive race from George Sheldon, a former secretary of the state Department of Children and Families. Sheldon will be running against history -- an incumbent Florida attorney general hasn't lost an election since 1964. To win, he’ll have to hope for a strong showing from Charlie Crist, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Bondi's campaign has struggled for oxygen in a crowded election season in Florida. A September Public Policy Polling survey had Bondi up by eight points.

Colorado: Open seat; held by John Suthers (R) (Shift from tossup)

Recent polling has Republican Cynthia Coffman, the chief deputy attorney general, leading Democratic former Adams County District Attorney Don Quick, 40 percent to 30 percent, with 24 percent of the electorate undecided. Democrats have been on the defensive in Colorado this cycle -- Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall are vulnerable -- and that lean is showing up in down-ballot races.

Tossup

Arkansas: Open seat; held by Dustin McDaniel (D)

In GOP-leaning Arkansas, the former Republican National Committee legal counsel Leslie Rutledge should have the advantage, but Democrat Nate Steel, a low-key moderate, is keeping it competitive. Recent fundraising figures suggest that Steel actually has more money for the final stretch, since a tough GOP primary drained a large share of the money Rutledge has raised. Steel’s challenge is to call attention to his down-ballot race, which is competing with competitive Senate and gubernatorial races.

Wisconsin: Open seat; held by J.B. Van Hollen (R)

Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ won the Democratic primary in August with surprising strength, and the first Marquette University poll after the primary gave her a sizable lead over her Republican opponent, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel. But that primary bounce has subsided; a later poll, released in September, found the two in virtual tie, with 20 percent undecided. Both sides are attacking each other about how they handled criminal cases during their tenures. However, the gubernatorial race -- one of the marquee races of the cycle nationally, between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke -- is sucking up all the oxygen. This race should go down to the wire.

Arizona: Open seat; held by Tom Horne (R)

In the GOP primary, Mark Brnovich defeated Horne, who was saddled with two scandals. Brnovich faces the Democrat that Horne narrowly defeated in 2010, Felecia Rotellini, who previously served as superintendent of the state Department of Financial Institutions. Rotellini has been endorsed by some leading Republicans and is in a statistical dead heat, according to a September poll, with 16 percent of likely voters undecided.

New Mexico: Open seat; held by Gary King (D) (Shift from lean Democratic)

Democratic state auditor Hector Balderas is facing Republican former prosecutor and district judge Susan Riedel. Balderas has a sizable money advantage, but Reidel has a solid reputation and may get a bump from GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, who’s coasting to a second term this year.

Lean Democratic

Nevada: Open seat; held by Catherine Cortez Masto (D) (Shift from likely Democratic)

Secretary of State Ross Miller, the son of a former governor and a mixed-martial-arts athlete, is favored to keep the AG seat in Democratic hands. Still, his opponent, Republican Adam Laxalt, began as a little-known Las Vegas lawyer with an intriguing ancestry and resume -- he’s the grandson of onetime Nevada governor and U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt, the illegitimate son of former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, a former aide to John Bolton, a top conservative figure on foreign policy, and a Navy vet who served in the Iraq War. Support from national GOP players have helped push this race into the competitive column, but Miller’s name identification and reputation suggest he’s still got the edge.

Rhode Island AG Peter Kilmartin (D)

The AG contest in Rhode Island has been overshadowed by the gubernatorial race. The incumbent, Kilmartin, is running for his second term after winning four years ago with less than 50 percent of the vote in the primary and the general election. (Independent parties took a whopping 29 percent of the vote in the general.) His low-key tenure so far has drawn attacks from his GOP opponent, state Sen. Dawson Hodgson, but in this strongly Democratic state, Kilmartin has an edge.

Likely Democratic

New York AG Eric Schneiderman (D) (Shift from safe Democratic)

The AG race has become New York’s most competitive statewide race this cycle, partly because the incumbent, Schneiderman, is still relatively unknown, despite serving a term in a post that in recent years has been occupied by political giants -- and future governors -- Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo. Republican John Cahill is a credible candidate who claims that internal polls show him just seven points behind in this solidly Democratic state. Public polls show a much wider race -- about 20 points -- but as a precaution we’re moving this race to likely Democratic, particularly given low Democratic voter enthusiasm this cycle.

Iowa AG Tom Miller (D)

Miller has the edge in seeking a ninth term as Iowa’s AG. But the Republican candidate, Adam Gregg, is credible; until he announced his candidacy, Gregg worked for popular GOP Gov. Terry Branstad. Gregg may find a silver lining if Miller retires after this term, leaving the seat open, but for 2014, we rate it likely Democratic. Miller was up 55 percent to 31 percent in a Public Policy Polling survey.

Illinois AG Lisa Madigan (D)

Madigan is a heavy favorite for re-election despite sharing a ticket with the highly vulnerable Democratic governor, Pat Quinn. She had a 20-point lead in a recent poll and has a substantial warchest. Republican challenger Paul Schimpf may have an impressive background -- U.S. Naval Academy graduate; lawyer in the Marine Corps who served as an advisor to Iraqi prosecutors in the trial of Saddam Hussein; congressional fellow for Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota; and strategist in the Pentagon's Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy -- but he also has no name recognition to speak of and far less money to spend. Schimpf’s lack of resources seems likely to prevent him from taking advantage of growing doubt about Illinois’ ruling Democratic Party, and the state GOP seems more focused on the gubernatorial race and the state treasurer seat, which is open.

Safe Democratic

Massachusetts: Open seat; held by Martha Coakley (D) (Shift from likely Democratic)

In the Democratic primary, Maura T. Healey resoundingly, and surprisingly, defeated the establishment-backed candidate, former state Sen. Warren Tolman. Healey is on a glide path to election: It's been over four decades since the GOP has won the AG’s office, and this year’s Republican candidate, John Miller, remains obscure and underfunded. Martha Coakley, the outgoing Democratic AG, may be losing her once-formidable lead in the gubernatorial race, but Healey should win regardless.

Minnesota AG Lori Swanson (D)

A Republican hasn't won Minnesota’s AG seat in decades, which means the popular Swanson is still solid in her bid to win a third term. The only wrinkle is that a former Democratic state lawmaker, Andy Dawkins, is running for AG under the Green Party banner. Dawkins is gunning to secure at least 5 percent of the vote in order to help the Green Party regain its lost major-party status. Still, this quest doesn’t look likely to derail Swanson’s re-election prospects.

Maryland: Open seat; held by Doug Gansler (D)

State Sen. Brian Frosh, a veteran Democratic lawmaker, won a competitive primary and faces Republican Jeffrey Pritzker, a Baltimore County corporate attorney who lost the 2002 GOP primary for state AG. This race is attracting far less attention than an open-seat gubernatorial contest. In a solidly Democratic state, Frosh is an overwhelming favorite.

Connecticut AG George Jepsen (D)

Jepsen continues to take a low-key approach to the office in a state that hasn't had a serious general election race for AG in decades. Even as Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy fights for his political life, it looks unlikely that Jepsen’s going to face much flak in his race against Republican Kie Westby and Green Party candidate Stephen Fournier.

Delaware: Open seat; held by Beau Biden (D)

With Biden -- the son of Vice President Joe Biden – running for governor, the seat is open. Democratic Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, who has also served as insurance commissioner, is a formidable favorite over Republican Ted Kittila in the AG race.

California AG Kamala Harris (D)

Unless Harris is tapped as a nominee for U.S. attorney general, she is a strong favorite to win a second term. A September Field poll found Harris up by 12 percentage points against Republican Ronald Gold.

Vermont AG Bill Sorrell (D)

Sorrell, Vermont's AG since 1997, faces Republican Shane McCormick, but the seat is a lock for the incumbent.

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