With tight contests brewing for president and control of Congress, there's no shortage of competitive races over the next 14 months. But a number of offices further down the ballot are also up for grabs, such as the low-profile but increasingly contested position of secretary of state.
Currently, Republicans control 30 seats; Democrats control 20. Most of these positions are officially known as secretary of state, but a few states hand equivalent duties to their lieutenant governor instead. All told, 39 are popularly elected, eight are appointed by the governor and three are appointed by the legislature.
Many secretaries of state have portfolios that include fairly neutral duties, such as overseeing the registration of businesses and lobbyists. But the main reason why they have become coveted and competitive offices in recent years is the role they can play in shaping how elections are conducted.
Part of this has to do with the perception that secretaries of state can aid their party in narrowly decided elections.
"Rightly or wrongly, there is a belief that having the party's secretary of state in office can influence the final outcome in a close race in that party's favor," says Republican Trey Grayson, who served as Kentucky's secretary of state and is now director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics. "In many cases, the secretary of state plays merely a clerical role by simply reporting the results that were tabulated at the local level. However, many Democrats blame Katherine Harris for President [George W.] Bush winning Florida in 2000, and many Republicans blame Mark Richie for Al Franken winning the Minnesota Senate recount in 2008."
But even if a secretary of state's power to decide elections is overrated, there are other reasons why the parties are interested in winning these races.
Secretaries of state have been key players in advocating their party's agenda for voting procedures. For Republicans, that usually means pushing tighter regulations, including photo identification requirements for voters and limits on how and where voters can be registered. For Democrats, that can mean loosening such standards, or at least blocking Republican efforts to tighten them.
"A secretary of state has a statewide platform from which to advocate for issues like photo ID or same-day registration," Grayson says. "A party switch in the secretary of state's office can result in different issues being discussed in a legislative body."
The other major reason parties are interested in seizing secretary of state positions has to do with building farm teams of candidates who are viable for higher office.
"How important is this office to Republicans and Democrats?" asks Ben Cannatti, a GOP consultant who works extensively on state-level races. He says that since 1990, 15 secretaries of state have been elected governor, and currently, nine members of Congress are former secretaries of state. "You will see a continued surge of time and money into these races."
Governing is not officially handicapping the secretary of state contests the way we do for governors, state legislatures and state attorneys general. We've taken a look at the 13 secretary of state offices that are being contested this year and next, and found at least five that look competitive: Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Oregon and Washington state. With the right combination of factors, Missouri and North Carolina could become competitive as well.
Here's a rundown of the 13 secretary of state contests that are slated to occur in 2011 and 2012. We've broken them down into three categories: competitive, potentially competitive and non-competitive.
Both Kentucky and Washington state have open seats.
In Kentucky, one of three states with a 2011 election, current Secretary of State Elaine Walker lost her party's primary to attorney and Democratic activist Alison Lundergan Grimes. Meanwhile, businessman and Navy veteran Bill Johnson won a contested Republican primary.
Grimes should benefit from Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's strong position in his race, but there are indications that the secretary of state contest will be close. In a late-August survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, Grimes held a narrow three-point lead, which was within the poll's four-point margin of error. In a debate, the two predictably clashed over voter ID.
In Washington state, Sam Reed -- the rare Republican who has been able to consistently win statewide office in this Democratic-leaning state -- decided not to seek a new term, leaving a competitive contest in his wake.
Two moderates are attracting the most attention -- Democratic state Sen. Jim Kastama and Republican Kim Wyman, the auditor of Thurston County. Other Democrats being mentioned are Kathleen Drew, a top adviser to outgoing Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire; former state Sen. Chris Marr; and state Rep. Zack Hudgins.
Meanwhile, in Oregon and Montana, a Democratic incumbent is facing credible opposition. In Oregon, Kate Brown -- who won easily in 2008 with help from Barack Obama -- is being challenged by Republican Knute Buehler, a surgeon and former Rhodes Scholar. Democrats have had a lock on the office since 1984, but observers say Buehler could make it a race.
In Montana, Democratic incumbent Linda McCulloch has just one opponent -- Scott Aspenlieder, who works for an engineering firm. As in Oregon, any reduction in support for Obama could give the GOP challenger a boost -- and Montana is already trending Republican.
Finally, in Maine, a secretary of state could lose his spot -- but only indirectly due to the voters. Maine is one of three states where the Legislature appoints the secretary of state. After a major partisan upheaval in 2010, the state could well shift again in 2012.
Last fall, the Democrats lost control of the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature. But Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the GOP-led Legislature have taken an aggressive approach that could prompt a backlash in this historically moderate state.
On voting issues specifically, the legislature, with the backing of Republican Secretary of State Charles E. (Charlie) Summers Jr., eliminated the state's same-day voter registration rule. But Democratic opponents managed to collect enough signatures to place the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot.
If the measure is overturned and Democrats regain control of the Legislature, Summers' hold on the position could be endangered.
In two states -- North Carolina and Missouri -- well-established Democratic secretaries of state have an edge, but are running in states where their party could be at a disadvantage in 2012.
In North Carolina, Elaine Marshall gained some statewide notice in 2010 due to her unsuccessful effort to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. Observers say that Marshall hasn't done anything to endanger her current position. She would probably be favored to win another term, but meager fundraising totals for the first half of 2011 lead some to speculate that she may not run again.
Mike Beitler -- who ran under the Libertarian banner against Burr in 2010 -- has already announced a bid for secretary of state in 2012, this time as a Republican. Beitler is a business professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
In Missouri, a Democratic incumbent with a golden last name has the early edge for 2012 - Robin Carnahan, whose father served as governor and was elected to a U.S. Senate seat days after he died in a plane crash. She lost a U.S. Senate race in 2010 during a terrible year for Democrats. With Missouri edging increasingly Republican in recent cycles, any statewide Democrat is potentially vulnerable.
However, Carnahan benefits from the fact that the Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, appears to be defying political gravity as he runs for a second term. Carnahan is also considered to be a better fundraiser than her two Republican opponents so far, GOP state Sens. Bill Stouffer and Scott Rupp.
We consider six secretary of state positions not competitive for 2011 and 2012, at least for now: Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia.
In Delaware, the secretary of state is appointed by the governor, but we don't consider Democratic Gov. Jack Markell likely to lose in 2012. That should mean job security for incumbent Democrat Jeff Bullock.
In Tennessee, where the Legislature appoints the secretary of state, Republican incumbent Tre Hargett looks to be in good shape since the GOP is expected to retain legislative control after 2012.
In Mississippi, Republican incumbent Delbert Hosemann is on a glide towards reelection in 2011.
In West Virginia, no significant opposition has yet emerged against Democratic incumbent Natalie Tennant in 2012.
In Louisiana, another state with a 2011 election, the GOP appears assured of keeping the secretary of state spot, though the particular occupant remains to be decided. Two New Orleans-area Republicans with experience in the state Legislature are facing off in the Oct. 22 primary - incumbent Secretary of State Tom Schedler against House Speaker Jim Tucker. Last year, Schedler succeeded his boss, then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, when Dardenne became lieutenant governor.
Finally, there's New Hampshire, where the secretary of state is in a class by himself.
The incumbent, William Gardner, is a Democrat that has been appointed to the office by the Legislature since 1976.
In New Hampshire, the secretary of state's most important duty -- perhaps the only important duty as far as most voters are concerned -- is keeping the state's "first in the nation" presidential primary status.
"He will be reelected until either he decides to retire or he somehow loses the first-in-the-nation status," says Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Losing the primacy of the New Hampshire primary doesn't seem likely. Gardner has been the most zealous defender of his state's prerogative and political parties will fine states that try to schedule primaries ahead of New Hampshire. Gardner may be the "safest incumbent in the nation," for any statewide position, says James Pindell, a political analyst for WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H.