Secretary of State Races Are More Competitive and Important Than Ever
Voter ID battles and cybersecurity concerns have intensified and elevated these races. Republicans have more seats -- and the most to lose.
Last Updated June 5 at 1:58 p.m. ET
Voting is one of the more divisive issues these days. While Republicans are pushing voter identification laws and purging inactive voters from the rolls, Democrats are doing everything they can to make voting easier.
This conflict, as well as growing concerns about cybersecurity of elections, has elevated the office of the secretary of state more than ever. It's also made this November's races much more intense.
Currently, Republicans hold 28 secretary of state offices, and the Democrats hold 17. (Our tally doesn't count Oklahoma's vacancy, Pennsylvania's nonpartisan position, and the three states that lack the position -- Alaska, Hawaii and Utah.) Of the 35 states where voters elect the secretary of state, 26 have contests this fall.
As the party with the most offices nationally, the Republicans are at greater risk. They will have to defend a total of seven open seats, in Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. By contrast, the Democrats, barring something unexpected, won't have to defend a single open seat.
There are more Republican vacancies this year than usual. That's partly because the position has become a significant stepping stone for ambitious politicians. Brian Kemp of Georgia and Kris Kobach of Kansas are running for governor; Jon Husted of Ohio is running for lieutenant governor; and Shantel Krebs of South Dakota is running for the U.S. House.
The breakdown of incumbents running for another term is more evenly divided between the parties: 10 for the Republicans and nine for the Democrats.
Not all of this year's contests are competitive, of course. But nine of them are, according to our handicapping, which rates the races as either safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic.
Five seats are in the lean Republican category, one in the tossup category and three in the lean Democratic category. The lean Republican seats are in Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas and Ohio; the tossup seat is in Nevada; and the lean Democratic seats are in Connecticut, Michigan and New Mexico.
All told, Republicans will have to defend seven competitive seats, compared to just two for the Democrats. Given the possibility of a Democratic wave in the midterm elections, this imbalance in competitive seats suggests the Democrats could gain a few seats.
There is one secretary of state race that we don't handicap, and it may be the most interesting one in 2018, partially because the Democratic incumbent is on the defensive. New Hampshire doesn't directly elect its secretary of state -- that's a job for the state legislature. Democrat Bill Gardner has kept hold of his office, regardless of legislative party control, since 1976 due in no small measure to his uncompromising defense of the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary status. But this year, he faces a tougher road to reappointment.
Gardner took flak -- particularly from Democrats -- for joining the Trump administration's short-lived voter fraud commission. Recognizing a potential opening, Democrat Colin Van Ostern, who lost a gubernatorial bid in 2016, decided to throw his hat in the ring. Gardner still has a deep well of support, but his continued service as secretary of state is not assured.
Louisiana will also hold a special election in November to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of GOP Secretary of State Tom Schedler amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The filing deadline is on July 20. Given the premature nature of the race, we won't be handicapping it yet.
Before we get to the ratings, a few notes:
- Vulnerability in our ratings does not mean an incumbent is at risk of losing a primary contest -- only a general election.
- Our handicapping is based on consultations with dozens of experts in the states, as well as national party strategists.
- And within all categories, the seats are listed from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.
Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney (R)
Denney, the incumbent, escaped primary opposition and should be able to defeat Democratic nominee Jill Humble, a nurse, in this solidly red state.
South Dakota: Open seat; held by Shantel Krebs (R)
The GOP will choose its secretary of state nominee at its party convention in mid-June. Observers expect the candidate to be the state auditor, Steve Barnett. Either way, the Republican nominee should be the overwhelming favorite in November.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R)
Merrill faces Marshall County Revenue Commissioner Michael Johnson in the primary and is expected to win because he is seen as personable and has traveled widely to forge support around the state. Merrill is also expected to beat his Democratic opponent, who will likely be business consultant and activist Heather Milam.
Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan (R)
Buchanan was appointed secretary of state after Republican Ed Murray resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Buchanan is expected to cruise to victory against Democratic state Rep. James Byrd in this deep red state. He previously served for a decade in the state House, including a stint as speaker.
Nebraska: Open seat; held by John Gale (R)
Republican Bon Enven, an attorney and former member of the state board of education, is the favorite against Democrat Spencer Danner.
South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond (R)
Hammond is running for a fifth term but facing a spirited June 12 primary challenge by state Rep. Josh Putnam. Putnam has called on Hammond to resign after his office's failure to affix the state seal to more than 100 pieces of legislation. Hammond is still favored, but whoever wins would start out as a favorite against the likely Democrat, Army veteran Melvin Whittenburg.
North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger (R)
This race has produced some unexpected fireworks. First, Jaeger, who has held the office since 1992, was defeated at the state GOP convention by businessman Will Gardner. Then, it came out that Gardner had pled guilty to disorderly conduct in a 2006 peeping case at a North Dakota State University women's dorm. After Gardner withdrew, it initially seemed like the GOP would be stuck with Gardner on the ballot, leaving the field open for Democratic state Rep. Josh Boschee. Eventually, though, Jaeger announced that he would run in the general election as an independent. Given Jaeger's statewide name recognition and North Dakota's Republican leanings, we're putting the race at likely Republican.
Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R)
Lawson is seeking her second full term. She's a favorite to win reelection despite her role in the aborted voter fraud commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Lawson denied the commission access to Indiana voter registration data, which provides her some cover from any negative fallout. The Democrat in the race is attorney Jim Harper. He faces an uphill climb: No Democrat has won the office since 1990.
Arkansas: Open seat; held by Mark Martin (R)
Commissioner of State Lands John Thurston defeated state Rep. Trevor Drown in the Republican primary and now faces Democrat Susan Inman in November. Substantively, Inman is highly qualified, having served as director of elections in the secretary of state's office and as Pulaski County's election director. This may enable her to keep the race close, but the GOP's partisan edge in the state makes her bid decidedly uphill.
Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (R)
Reagan, a first-term incumbent, faces a contested GOP primary, including challenges from former state Sen. Lori Klein Corbin, businessman Steve Gaynor and immigration lawyer Kevin Gibbons. Whoever prevails in the GOP primary will face a credible Democratic challenge from either state Sen. Katie Hobbs or attorney Mark Robert Gordon. This contest could shift depending on who wins the nominations. But for now, we're putting it at likely Republican.
Georgia: Open seat; held by Brian Kemp (R)
Two Republican candidates will face each other in a runoff: former state Rep. Brad Raffensperger and former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle. The winner will square off against the Democratic nominee, former U.S. Rep. John Barrow. Until the final matchup emerges, we'll put this contest at lean Republican.
Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R)
This race will likely center on a voter ID law passed by the GOP-controlled Iowa General Assembly in 2017. Pate supported the law, and Democrats see it as a factor energizing their base. The two Democratic candidates are Deidre DeJear, a former Barack Obama outreach organizer, and Jim Mowrer, an Iraq War veteran who ran twice for Congress. Either would need a reasonably strong blue wave in the state to oust the incumbent.
Ohio: Open seat; held by Jon Husted (R)
Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose and Democratic state Rep. Kathleen Clyde will face off in a competitive November contest. The GOP's recent success in statewide contests leads us to start this race off as lean Republican. But if Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray catches a blue wave, Clyde could benefit.
Kansas: Open seat; held by Kris Kobach (R)
After eight years of controversy under Kobach -- a champion of tough voter fraud laws -- the race to succeed him is wide open. On the Republican side, the field consists of several credible candidates, including state Reps. Scott Schwab and Keith Esau, former deputy assistant Secretary of State Craig McCullah and former Sam Brownback administration official Dennis Taylor. The Democrats have one candidate, but he's intriguingly outside-the-box: Brian McClendon, a former executive with Google and Uber who is originally from Lawrence. McClendon's deep pockets, combined with the post-Kobach hangover and a relatively strong rest of the ballot for Kansas Democrats, makes this contest more competitive than usual for the Jayhawk State.
Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R)
Williams has been reasonably popular, but if a Democratic wave develops in Colorado, his opponent, attorney and activist Jena Griswold, could mount a serious challenge. She faces long historical odds: Democrats have not won the office in six decades.
Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R)
This race will tilt depending on the strength of a possible blue wave. Cegavske is expected to face Democratic state Assemblyman Nelson Araujo. Polling shows Araujo slightly ahead, but it's premature to call this anything but a tossup.
Michigan: Open seat; held by Ruth Johnson (R)
In Michigan, the two parties will select their nominees in late August state conventions. The Republican front-runners are Stan Grot, the Shelby Township clerk and former Macomb County commissioner, and Mary Treder Lang, an accountant and Eastern Michigan University regent. Either would face a tough race against former Wayne State University law school dean Jocelyn Benson, particularly if a blue wave develops. Benson lost a previous bid for the seat narrowly in 2010, which was an awful environment for a Democrat.
Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill (D)
Merrill prevailed by a fairly wide margin amid a challenge at the state convention by Karen Talamelli Cusick, a Democratic town chairwoman. Republicans, hoping that voter angst over Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy's two terms will spill over into other statewide contests, are pinning their hopes on Susan Chapman, a former first selectwoman. Merrill is the favorite for November -- but not a solid one.
New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D)
Democrats have a strong shot at winning back the governorship this year, and if they do, they should be fine in the secretary of state race, too. (It doesn't hurt that the last Republican to hold the office, Dianna Duran, went to prison on fraud and embezzlement charges.) Republican JoHanna Cox, a former prosecutor, should be able to run a credible campaign. A wild card is the Libertarian candidacy of Sandra Jeff, who previously served in the legislature as a Democrat. For now, though, this race leans Democratic.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D)
John Howe, a former Republican state senator and congressional candidate, is seeking the GOP nomination, but the incumbent, Simon, is favored to win another term.
Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug LaFollette (D)
La Follette is running for an 11th term, though he hasn't escaped a primary challenge this year from Arvina Martin, the first Native American to be elected to the city council in Madison. The winner will be the favorite against former Menasha Town Supervisor Jay Schroeder in the general election.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos (D)
Without a top-tier Republican challenger, Condos looks safe for reelection.
Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea (D)
In 2014, Gorbea was a first-time candidate and an underdog against a well-known, self-financed primary opponent. But she was an energetic campaigner and narrowly won the primary. She went on to win the general election, becoming the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in New England. Gorbea has maintained a high profile in the state. Republicans have until the end of June to find a candidate, but whoever they choose will be at a steep disadvantage.
Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin (D)
The action will be in the Democratic primary, where Boston City Councilman Josh Zakim is challenging Galvin -- and recently secured the endorsement at the party convention over the incumbent. Zakim is young and dynamic, but Galvin has the edge in name recognition and is currently the favorite.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D)
Padilla, the first Latino to hold the position in California history, is heavily favored to win another term.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White (D)
White is considered a lock for reelection due to his long tenure in office. He'll face Jason Helland, a little-known prosecutor from a small county.