Politics

What's Ahead for the Attorney General Races in 2014?

Here's the rankings for AG offices up for re-election in November.
by | December 19, 2013
Arizona's Republican Attorney General, Tom Horne is the most embattled incumbent AG in the country, due to an overlapping set of campaign finance and vehicular allegations, some of which have been dropped.
Arizona's Republican Attorney General, Tom Horne, is the most embattled incumbent AG in the country, due to an overlapping set of campaign finance and vehicular allegations, some of which have been dropped. AP/Ross D. Franklin

The 50 state attorney general offices have gotten a little bit more competitive since we published our last handicapping in March. But not by much.

The Democrats will begin 2014 with a narrow edge of 26 seats to 24. Their edge in AG offices that are popularly elected is even narrower - 22 to 21 seats. However, the seat-by-seat lineup is slightly different than it was nine months ago, with a few more positions now coming open due to retirements.

In September, Wyoming AG Gregory A. Phillips -- who, interestingly, was a Democrat appointed to the office by a Republican governor -- was named by President Obama to the federal appeals court. After Phillips' confirmation, Gov. Matt Mead tapped interim AG Peter K. Michael, a Republican, to take the post on a permanent basis, dropping the Democratic number by one.

But the Democrats have evened the score in Virginia. This November, Democrat Mark Herring won the Virginia attorney general's race over Republican Mark Obenshain. The result was exceedingly close, prompting a recount. Ultimately, Herring prevailed and will succeed Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

In the meantime, four AGs have announced that they won't seek another term. Two new Republican-held open seats should easily remain in GOP hands -- Texas, where Greg Abbott is running for governor, and Utah, where John Swallow resigned amid ethics concerns.

Slightly more competitive will be the Massachusetts seat vacated by Martha Coakley, a Democrat who is running for governor, and the Wisconsin seat vacated by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. His decision gives Democrats a fair shot at flipping the seat.

This is our first attempt in the 2013-2014 cycle to categorize the AG seats as being safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic.

As always in our handicapping, "vulnerability" refers either to the weakness of an incumbent AG's chance of winning reelection, or, if the AG is leaving office, the weakness of the incumbent party's ability to hold the seat after his or her departure. Vulnerability, in our ratings, does not mean an incumbent is at risk of losing a primary contest.

In the handicapping below, seats rated as safe for either party are listed alphabetically. But in each of the other categories, the seats are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.

Overall, the Republicans have more AG seats to defend in 2014 -- specifically 17, compared to 14 for the Democrats. And among the eight seats that are "competitive" -- that is, either tossups or leaning to one party or the other -- the GOP currently holds five of them.

On balance, the breakdown of competitive seats suggests that, in the absence of a major partisan wave, the Democrats could gain an AG seat or two in 2014. Still, there's a strong likelihood that the AG offices will see a lot of stability: No fewer than 23 seats, in our opinion, are noncompetitive.

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 do not see a high likelihood that any of these seven seats will shift.

In Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Wyoming, the governor appoints the AG. In Maine, the legislature appoints the AG, and in Tennessee, the state Supreme Court appoints the official. In Tennessee, the current eight-year term of Democrat Robert Cooper is set to end in 2014. What the justices do is anyone's guess.

This leaves three AG offices to be contested in 2015: Kentucky (D), Louisiana (R) and Mississippi (D). Eight others will be contested in 2016: Indiana (R), Missouri (D), Montana (R), North Carolina (D), Oregon (D), Pennsylvania (D), Washington state (D) and West Virginia (R).

Safe Republican

Alabama AG Luther Strange (R)

Strange continues to be in good shape to win a second term in this strongly Republican state.

Georgia AG Sam Olens (R)

Olens' conservative approach has played well in strongly Republican Georgia; he's considered a safe bet to win a second term.

Idaho AG Lawrence Wasden (R)

There's been no talk of anyone in either party considering a challenge to Wasden, who was first elected in 2002. Furthermore, there's no indication that Wasden is looking to run for higher office.

Kansas AG Derek Schmidt (R)

Schmidt, first elected in 2010, continues to maintain support from both moderates and conservatives in the divergent wings of the Kansas GOP. State Democrats are more focused on targeting a pair of hard-edged conservatives seeking re-election -- Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Schmidt isn't really on anyone's radar screen.

Nebraska AG Jon Bruning (R)

Bruning has no opposition in his bid for a fourth term; he should win in a walk.

North Dakota AG Wayne Stenehjem (R)

Stenehjem has won four AG elections and has no declared opposition yet. He should be a lock for another term.

Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt (R)

Pruitt doesn't have any challengers yet; it should be smooth sailing to a second term.

South Carolina AG Alan Wilson (R)

Wilson, elected in 2010, has avoided the kind of flak that has made GOP Gov. Nikki Haley's bid for a second term something short of a cakewalk even though she's running in a solidly Republican state. Wilson looks quite secure.

South Dakota AG Marty Jackley (R)

Jackley, who was elected to a full term in 2010, lacks an announced challenger and remains a sure bet for re-election in 2014.

Texas: Open seat; held by Greg Abbott (R)

Abbott, a three-term AG, is running for governor. His successor will almost certainly be a Republican; the question is which one. State Rep. Dan Branch is more or less in the center of the Texas GOP, but he has made an effort to emphasize his conservative credentials in order to appeal to the primary electorate and to forestall support flowing to the harder-edged state Sen. Ken Paxton. Paxton is reminding primary voters of Branch's ties to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who many party activists view as too moderate. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, meanwhile, tends to be identified with the party's establishment wing. Branch and Smitherman are likely to be better funded, while Paxton will depend on grassroots energy. A runoff looks likely. The Democrats' best, though still uphill, shot would have been state Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio, but he decided not to run for AG. In his absence, the Democrats do have a candidate -- with the memorable name Sam Houston -- but he is a longshot.

Utah: Open seat; Republican appointee pending

Republican John Swallow, who occupied the office for just 11 months, resigned amid several investigations into campaign violations. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert will choose an interim successor from a list submitted by the state GOP, with an election scheduled for 2014. Republicans are a heavy favorite to keep the seat.

Likely Republican

Ohio AG Mike DeWine (R)

DeWine, elected in 2010, has attracted more media attention than other down-ballot officials, most of it positive. It doesn't hurt either that Republican Gov. John Kasich, once seen as vulnerable, is looking like a better bet for re-election. The likely Democrat, former Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper, faces an uphill climb.

Lean Republican

Michigan AG Bill Schuette (R)

Schuette will likely be renominated without a convention challenge. For now, the only announced Democrat pursuing a candidacy for the attorney general's office is Mark Totten, a Kalamazoo attorney who is on the faculty of the Michigan State University School of Law. Michigan is a politically competitive state, but Schuette is currently the favorite.

Florida AG Pam Bondi (R)

Bondi, elected in the strong Republican year of 2010, faces a competitive race from at least two Democrats -- state House Minority Leader Perry Thurston and George Sheldon, a former secretary of the state Department of Children and Families. Whichever Democrat runs will make an issue of Bondi's decision to postpone an execution in order to attend a fundraiser. Still, an incumbent Florida attorney general hasn't lost an election since 1964, and Bondi has already raised more than $2 million. Whether she prevails could depend on whether GOP Gov. Rick Scott becomes a drag down-ballot, as well on whether the Democratic brand holds up amid concerns over the troubled rollout of Obamacare, a law Bondi has firmly opposed.

Tossup

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

The possible field of successors to McDaniel, who's faced personal troubles, is now pretty settled: one Democrat, Nate Steel, and two Republicans, North Little Rock attorney David Sterling and former Republican National Committee legal counsel Leslie Rutledge. Steel has an uphill fight in a state increasingly unfriendly to Democrats, but he is the fundraising leader so far, and the GOP will have to contend with a contested primary. For now, the general election looks like a jump ball.

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

In a surprise, Van Hollen, elected in 2006, decided against seeking another term, leaving a wide-open contest to succeed him in a sharply divided Wisconsin. The Democrats are Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and longtime state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee. The one Republican in the race so far is District Attorney Brad Schimel, who hails from the vote-rich GOP stronghold of Waukesha County. Meanwhile, Jim Palmer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, could be a wild card: He's considering a third-party bid. If Gov. Scott Walker prevails over Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, the GOP candidate should win as well. The Democrats will have to hope for some lift from Burke. For now, it looks like a pure tossup.

Colorado: Open seat; Held by John Suthers (R)

In the contest to succeed the term-limited Suthers, the Democrats have a strong candidate in former Adams County District Attorney Don Quick. But after several successful campaign cycles, the Democrats are on the defensive in Colorado due to apparent overreach on such issues as gun control. That is giving the GOP a leg up in keeping this seat in the fold. The Republican field includes two credible candidates -- House Minority Leader Mark Waller and Cynthia Coffman, the chief deputy attorney general who is married to Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman.

Arizona AG Tom Horne (R)

Horne, elected in 2010, is the most embattled incumbent AG in the country, due to an overlapping set of campaign finance and vehicular allegations, some of which have been dropped. Horne faces GOP primary competition from Mark Brnovich, a former state gaming director. If Horne does survive the GOP primary, he will likely face the woman he narrowly defeated in 2010, Felecia Rotellini, who previously served as superintendent of the state Department of Financial Institutions.

Lean Democratic

New Mexico: Open seat; held by Gary King (D)

In the race to succeed the term-limited King, one Democrat -- Public Regulation Commissioner Jason Marks -- is out, but another, State Auditor Hector Balderas, is in. Balderas, who lost to Martin Heinrich in a 2012 primary for a U.S. Senate seat, has a record of pursuing corruption; he has a good shot of keeping the seat in Democratic hands. As for the GOP, District Attorney Matt Chandler, who lost to King in the 2010 AG race, is being rumored as a possible candidate, and could benefit if high-profile GOP Gov. Susana Martinez has coattails in her bid for a second term

.

Rhode Island AG Peter Kilmartin (D)

Kilmartin is running for his second term in 2014, after winning 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.) Well-liked and relatively low-profile, Kilmartin has one potential bit of baggage: While serving in the legislature, he voted to support bonds for 38 Studios, a video game company affiliated with major leaguer Curt Schilling, that failed spectacularly, exposing the state to major losses. At least one Republican is considering the race, state Sen. Dawson Hodgson. In a strongly Democratic state, Kilmartin starts with the edge, but not an insurmountable one.

Likely Democratic

Massachusetts: Open seat, held by AG Martha Coakley (D)

Coakley is running for governor, leaving a wide-open AG seat. One of Coakely's aides, Maura T. Healey, has indicated she's running, as has Warren Tolman, lawyer and former state senator who competed unsuccessfully for the 2002 Democratic nomination for governor. A third Democratic candidate is state Rep. Harold Naughton. Possible Republicans include state Sen. Bruce Tarr, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and former prosecutor Peter Flaherty, an adviser to former GOP Gov. Mitt Romney.

Nevada: Open seat; held by Catherine Cortez Masto (D)

Secretary of State Ross Miller, the son of a former governor and briefly a mixed-martial-arts athlete, is a formidable candidate to keep the AG seat in Democratic hands. At least two potentially strong GOP candidates -- state senators Greg Brower and Mark Hutchison -- have backed off the AG race. The most intriguing Republican name left in the mix is Adam Laxalt, the grandson of onetime Nevada governor and U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt and the illegitimate son of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici. A Las Vegas lawyer, Laxalt has also worked for John Bolton, a top conservative figure on foreign policy and spent five years in the Navy, including service in Iraq. Still, Miller starts out as a strong favorite.

Iowa AG Tom Miller (D)

Miller is seeking a ninth term as AG. A top-tier GOP challenger has not materialized, leaving Miller in the driver's seat.

Illinois AG Lisa Madigan (D)

The high-profile Madigan passed on a bid for governor and is now seeking re-election. She's a heavy favorite to win. Her GOP challenger, Paul Schimpf, has 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. Schimpf may have a political future, but he starts out as a decided underdog against a figure as big as Madigan.

Safe Democratic

California AG Kamala Harris (D)

Harris, a national star-in-the-making, is rock-solid for re-election in 2014 despite high staff turnover and impossibly high expectations. She has no announced opponents from either party just six months from the primary.

Connecticut AG George Jepsen (D)

Jepsen is still taking a low-key approach to the office that contrasts that of his predecessors, former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and current U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. There's no reason to believe the race will break from tradition -- the state hasn't had a serious general election race for attorney general in decades.

Delaware AG Beau Biden (D)

Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden, is a lock for re-election in a Biden-crazy state, as long as health problems don't intrude.

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

The Democrats still have the far deeper bench in this solidly blue state. The two frontrunners are state Sen. Brian Frosh, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and state Del. Jon Cardin, the nephew of U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin. Also running are state Del. Bill Frick and state Del. Aisha Braveboy. There's still no GOP candidate in sight, so whoever wins the Democratic primary should be a shoo-in.

Minnesota AG Lori Swanson (D)

A Republican hasn't won the Minnesota AG's race in decades, which means the popular Swanson is still rock-solid in her bid to win a third term.

New York AG Eric Schneiderman (D)

Schneiderman, elected in 2010, has continued to take a high-profile role, as is typical of New York attorney generals. Michael Garcia, the Republican former federal prosecutor who took down one of Schneiderman's predecessors, Eliot Spitzer, is weighing a run. Other Republicans mentioned include Randy Mastro, a former federal prosecutor and top aide to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Marc Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor and son of former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Schneiderman should have no problem winning a second term.

Vermont AG Bill Sorrell (D)

Sorrell, Vermont's AG since 1997, announced in October that he would run for a ninth term in 2014. The main thing that could stand in Sorrell's way would be a primary challenge by T.J. Donovan, the Chittenden County state's attorney who challenged Sorrell in the 2012 primary and lost only narrowly. Donovan hasn't stated his intentions for 2014, but observers would be surprised if he tried again in 2014, suggesting he's likelier to keep his powder dry until Sorrell retires. Either way, the seat is a virtual lock to stay in Democratic hands.

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