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4 States Have Competitive Attorney General Races in 2016

Republicans play offense in three states, while Democrats have a shot at flipping one seat.

Pennsylvania Attorney General
After having her law license suspended and being slapped with criminal charges, Pennsylvania AG Kathleen Kane decided not to run for re-election.
(AP/Matt Rourke)
In a hotly contested presidential election year, developments in the state attorney general races aren’t attracting much attention. But in four states, the contests are turning out to be competitive and surprisingly tricky to handicap.

In this rundown -- our first since October -- we have categorized three AG contests as tossups and one as lean Republican. Each is an open seat, and all feature wide-open primaries for at least one party, and in most cases both.

The three contests we’re currently rating as tossups are all held by Democrats: Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The fourth competitive contest is the GOP-held seat in Indiana. With this handicapping, we’ve changed the rating from tossup to lean Republican, although the race is fluid enough to easily return to the tossup category later in the campaign season.

Beyond these four states, the other races for attorney general have actually become less competitive. We’ve shifted the GOP-held seat in Montana from likely Republican to safe Republican, and we’ve shifted the Democratic-held seat in Washington state from likely Democratic to safe Democratic. The contests in Oregon, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia remain safe for the incumbent party.

Meanwhile, we’ve removed from our list the three AG contests that were settled in November. The results in each state ended up leaving the incumbent party in control.

In Louisiana, the GOP held onto the post even though incumbent Buddy Caldwell lost to his Republican challenger Jeff Landry. Caldwell prevailed in the all-party primary but later lost to Landry by double digits in the all-GOP runoff. In Mississippi, Democrat Jim Hood held off a challenge by Republican Mike Hurst, winning by a double-digit margin. And in a close race in Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear won an open-seat race against GOP state Sen. Whitney Westerfield. (Beshear is the son of former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear.)

As usual, we have categorized the races as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic. In the handicapping below, the seats are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.

Currently, the GOP holds 27 AG offices, with 23 for the Democrats. If the GOP can run the table -- holding the Indiana seat and flipping Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania -- its lead would jump to a dominating 30-20. But in the absence of a national partisan tide, the GOP stands to gain one or two seats. Democrats, by contrast, look likely to have a shot, at best, of making a net gain of one seat. 

Safe Republican

Utah AG Sean Reyes (R)

No one is challenging Reyes, a Mormon Republican of Filipino and Hispanic descent who is rebuilding an office damaged by corruption charges against his two predecessors, Republicans Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow. Serving in one of the reddest states in the nation, Reyes continues to occupy the safest Republican AG seat in the country.

Montana AG Tim Fox (R) (Shifts from Likely Republican)

Fox, a first-term AG with both nice-guy and conservative credentials, is even more a shoo-in than he was before. Time is running out for the state’s Democrats to field a candidate against him. Fox got a policy boost when the U.S. Supreme Court moved to stay the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. He had joined other states in suing to stop them, a popular move in an energy state. Fox also has been endorsed by the state’s leading teachers’ union.

Likely Republican

West Virginia AG Patrick Morrisey (R)

The legislative session that ends in mid-March -- which has featured a number of hotly contested issues including right-to-work legislation -- has dominated West Virginia’s political scene, and whatever attention has been given to statewide races has accrued to the highly competitive open-seat gubernatorial contest. This has helped the incumbent AG, who was already in a strong position to win a second term in this Republican-trending state. Indeed, potential Democratic contenders have continued to take a pass on the race, leaving Del. Doug Reynolds as the only Democratic candidate. While the AG race should attract more attention after the legislative session ends, Reynolds still faces an uphill climb to oust Morrisey.

Lean Republican

Indiana: Open seat; AG Greg Zoeller (R) is running for Congress (shifts from tossup)

Indiana is a Republican-leaning state, but the GOP must sort out its large field of candidates, a process that will include a state party convention. The GOP field includes former Republican AG Steve Carter, a longtime confidant of Zoeller; Randy Head, a two-term state senator and former county prosecutor; Elkhart County prosecutor Curtis Hill, Jr.; and Abigail Kuzma, an official in the AG’s office. Carter is the only one to have sought statewide office before, though his long career could be a negative in an anti-establishment year. Head, who has a reputation for unpretentiousness, has won plaudits for his legislative record. Hill is known as a tough prosecutor, and he’s had a good start in fundraising. Kuzma, for her part, has dealt with consumer protection and sex trafficking at the AG’s office, but has the least electoral experience in the GOP field.

Once the Republican nomination is settled, the party should start out with an edge in the general election, even though the Democrats are expected to field an intriguing candidate in retired Lake County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Arredondo. He was the longest serving elected Latino state trial judge in the country when he retired from the bench in 2010. Whether the Democrats have a good shot of flipping the AG seat depends more than anything on external factors, especially on how voters feel in November about GOP Gov. Mike Pence, who has been having a rough year or two. For now, the Democrats are focusing more attention on ousting Pence and protecting the superintendent of public instruction post. But if Pence remains unpopular, the AG contest could shift back to tossup.


Missouri: Open seat; AG Chris Koster (D) is running for governor

The August primary should feature a number of candidates with a limited statewide profile -- Democrats Teresa Hensley, a former county prosecutor, and Jake Zimmerman, a St. Louis County assessor, along with Republicans Kurt Schaefer, an outspoken state senator, and Josh Hawley, a University of Missouri law professor who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The candidates in both contested primaries are battling it out on the Internet as they try to bolster their war chests, but voters are largely in the dark due to the absence of media coverage, a vacuum that should continue until at least June, and perhaps afterward, given Missouri’s busy election year. The state has an open-seat gubernatorial race and a competitive Senate contest in 2016. Whichever candidates become nominees, the general election should be wide open.

Pennsylvania: Open seat; AG Kathleen Kane (D) is not seeking another term

With her decision not to seek another term, Kane’s nightmarish tenure as AG -- which has included criminal charges against her and a suspended law license -- is now winding down, leaving a wide-open contest to succeed her. The Democratic field includes three credible candidates who have been aggressively attacking each other: Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro; John Morganelli, the Northampton county district attorney who lost the 2008 general election for attorney general; and Stephen A. Zappala Jr., the Allegheny County district attorney. Shapiro is the frontrunner, boasting endorsements from Gov. Tom Wolf and former Gov. Ed Rendell. Zappala has the backing of Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, while Morganelli counts former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham in his corner. The GOP field, meanwhile, features two candidates: state Sen. John Rafferty and former police officer and federal prosecutor Joe Peters. It’s too early to say which party will have an edge in November, particularly if the presidential contest comes down to Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton. In that case, top-of-the-ballot pressures could shape the parties’ downballot prospects.

North Carolina: Open seat; AG Roy Cooper (D) is running for governor

Two Democrats and two Republicans are contesting the seat being left open by Cooper, the long-serving Democratic AG who’s running for governor. On the Republican side, it’s state Sen. Buck Newton vs. Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill. On the Democratic side, it’s state Sen. Josh Stein, who worked in the AG’s office earlier in his career as deputy attorney general for consumer protection, against attorney Marcus Williams. In this battleground state, the presidential and gubernatorial contests could have a significant impact come November.

Likely Democratic

Vermont: Open seat; AG Bill Sorrell (D) is retiring

In the first open AG election in Vermont since 1984, the Democrats are still looking strong to keep the seat Sorrell has held since his 1997 appointment. T.J. Donovan -- the state's attorney for Chittenden County, the state's largest – is unlikely to face serious Democratic primary opposition. The GOP has until late May to field a candidate. In the absence of a strong Republican nominee, this race should eventually shift to safe Democratic.

Safe Democratic

Washington state: AG Bob Ferguson (D) (Shift from likely Democratic)

This race has remained quiet, which is good news for Ferguson. Unless there’s a surprise, he has a clear path to another term.

Oregon: AG Ellen Rosenblum (D)

There’s still no sign of any activity on the GOP side to challenge Rosenblum, and it’s not as if there’s a history of strong Republican AG candidates in the state – there hasn't been a serious GOP contender over the past two decades. Barring something unexpected as the filing deadline nears, the incumbent looks good for another term.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Pennsylvania state Sen. John Rafferty is from Scranton, which is not true. 

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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