Democratic Secretaries of State Most At Risk in 2016 Races

Republicans currently dominate the office that holds significant power over elections.
by | April 27, 2016
Elaine Marshall has served as North Carolina's secretary of state since 1996. She's up for re-election again this year. (AP/Gerry Broome)

Presidential campaign years are a busy time for secretaries of state, as they’re preoccupied with getting voters registered, working out ballot logistics, and counting and recounting votes. And this year, a number of secretaries of state also have their own elections to worry about.

In 2016, eight secretaries of state will be chosen directly by voters. In virtually all of these races, the incumbent party is expected to face a competitive primary and/or a competitive general election contest.

Currently, the GOP holds 28 secretary of state offices, and the Democrats hold 22. (That includes the handful of states where the lieutenant governor handles the role of secretary of state.)

Of these offices, most -- but not all -- are directly elected by the voters. Of the 39 elected positions, the Republicans currently dominate, with 23 seats to the Democrats’ 16. The parties split the appointed offices, 4-4, while the Democrats lead 2-1 in states where the legislature chooses the secretary of state.

Secretaries of state can wield significant authority over the details of elections, making them of vital importance to both parties. Some secretaries, such as Kansas Republican Kris Kobach, have used the office to advance an aggressive push for ballot security, or what critics deride as voter suppression.

It is this column’s practice not to do an official handicapping for secretary of state races the way we do for gubernatorial, state attorney general and state legislative contests. However, we will provide a state-of-play for each of this year’s secretary of state races.

Among the eight offices up for election this year, Democrats have more secretary of state seats at risk. They must defend open seats in Missouri and Montana, and have incumbents on the hot seat in North Carolina and West Virginia -- all states that lean Republican on the presidential level, complicating the Democratic party’s quest to retain control.

The Republicans, for their part, have an open seat to defend in New Mexico and a vulnerable incumbent in Washington state.

Only two states -- Oregon and Vermont -- seem unlikely to host competitive races this year.

In addition to these states, four others will hold elections this fall that could change the partisan affiliation of the secretary of state by determining who will make new appointments. In Delaware and Utah, the governor holds the appointment power; in Maine and New Hampshire, the legislature does.

Secretary of state races are heavily influenced by top-of-the-ballot factors, of which there will be plenty in the fall’s high-spending presidential contest. But issues specific to the office, such as voter identification requirements and other efforts to tighten -- or ease -- rules for voting, are expected to energize the bases of both parties.

Here’s a state-by-state rundown of how the 2016 secretary of state races stand. The states are listed alphabetically.

Missouri (D-held open seat)

Missouri, a state with free-for-all contests for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate, should also have a competitive race for secretary of state. The current officeholder, Democrat Jason Kander, is running for a U.S. Senate seat. His bid for higher office has convinced one Democrat and two Republicans to seek the post. The Democrat is Robin Smith, a longtime former reporter and TV anchor. The Republicans are state Sen. Will Kraus and Jay Ashcroft, the son of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. At this point, the primary and the general are wide open.

Montana (D-held open seat)

In Montana, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch is term-limited out, and both parties there are fielding candidates with electoral experience. The Democratic candidate is two-term State Auditor Monica Lindeen. The Republican is former state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, who served eight years in the chamber before running unsuccessful primary bids for governor in 2012 and U.S. House in 2014.

New Mexico (R-held open seat)

Brad Winter was appointed secretary of state in 2015 after his twice-elected Republican predecessor, Dianna Duran, resigned amid an embezzlement investigation that led to a plea agreement and a 30-day sentence. Winter is not seeking a full term in this year’s special election. The Democratic candidate is Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the current clerk of Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous. She ran and lost to Duran in 2014. The Republican candidate is state Rep. Nora Espinoza. Both candidates are reasonably well-known and well-connected, suggesting a competitive contest in the fall.

North Carolina (D-held)

Elaine Marshall has served as secretary of state since 1996, but her re-election bid -- in a purplish state that has turned bright red in recent years -- bears watching since it will be a presidential battleground and gubernatorial race will be one of the most closely watched in the nation. Marshall starts out as the favorite against Michael LaPaglia, a political newcomer who easily defeated funeral home director A.J. Daoud in the March Republican primary.

Oregon (D-held open seat)

Last year, Kate Brown, then the secretary of state, became governor when fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber resigned amid an ethics controversy. Brown appointed Jeanne Atkins to succeed her as secretary of state; Atkins pledged that she would not seek a full term. This year’s secretary of state election was already poised to become a target for ambitious Oregon politicians since Brown would have been term-limited out of office in 2016. Both parties have contested primaries. Contenders include thrice-elected state labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2008; state Sen. Richard Devlin, the longtime co-chair of the budget-writing joint Ways and Means Committee; and state Rep. Val Hoyle, a former House majority leader. On the Republican side, it’s a face-off between former state Rep. Dennis Richardson, the party's unsuccessful 2014 nominee for governor, and Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken. Whichever Democrat emerges from the primary is likely to have an advantage in November, given presidential-year turnout patterns and the fact that the Democrats have held the office since 1985.

Vermont (D-held)

Jim Condos, who’s seeking a fourth term, is easily the safest incumbent on this list. In fact, Condos may not even get a GOP opponent if he can acquire enough write-in votes during the GOP primary to be listed on the general election ballot as both a Democrat and a Republican.

Washington (R-held)

The GOP has held the secretary of state’s office for the last 52 years. But Washington has become so reliably Democratic -- leaving Secretary of State Kim Wyman the state’s only statewide elected Republican -- that the Democrats are putting up a tough fight for the office in 2016. Wyman has more than 20 years of experience in election administration, first as elections director, then the auditor of Thurston County and now as secretary of state. This experience has given her a national profile in election administration. Her Democratic opponent, Tina Podlodowski, is an independently wealthy former manager at Microsoft. She served one term on the Seattle City Council in the 1990s and also ran an AIDS charity and worked for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

West Virginia (D-held)

Natalie Tennant was elected secretary of state in 2008 and won re-election in 2012. She’s also a Democrat in a state that has veered sharply toward the GOP in recent years. This year, she’s seeking another term as secretary of state, but she faces competition in both the May primary and in the general election. First-term Del. Patsy Trecost, a former city councilman and mayor of Clarksburg, is mounting a primary bid, while Republican Andrew (Mac) Warner, an Army veteran with deep ties in the state Republican Party, is running on the GOP side.