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Democrats Maintain the Edge in Secretary of State Races

Since June, six races have shifted in the party's favor.

The battle to control the nation's secretary of state offices is nearing its climax, and the Democrats -- already presented with a more favorable playing field in open seats -- have incrementally improved their position in recent months.

Since our last round of handicapping in June, we have shifted our ratings in seven races -- six in the Democrats' direction and one in the Republicans'. To prevent Democratic gains, the Republicans will have to ride grassroots enthusiasm, such as what emerged over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Currently, Republicans hold 29 secretary of state offices to the Democrats' 17. Our tally doesn't count Pennsylvania's nonpartisan office or the three states that lack the position altogether -- Alaska, Hawaii and Utah. Of the 35 states where voters elect the secretary of state, 27 have contests this fall, including a special election in Louisiana, which we are rating here for the first time.

As the party with the most offices nationally, the Republicans have more seats at risk. They will have to defend a total of eight open seats -- in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota. By contrast, the Democrats won't have to defend a single open seat.

Our handicapping rates each of these races as either safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic.

We find eight of the 26 elections this year to be competitive, meaning they are rated in the lean or tossup categories, and all eight of those offices are currently held by a Republican. Two of these seats are in the lean Republican category, five are in the tossup category, and one is in the lean Democratic category.

Since June, the six contests that have shifted in the Democrats' favor are Arizona's Republican-held seat from likely Republican to lean Republican; three Republican-held seats in Iowa, Kansas and Ohio from lean Republican to tossup; and two seats from lean Democratic to likely Democratic in Connecticut and New Mexico.

The one seat that shifted in the GOP's direction is North Dakota, which goes from likely Republican to safe Republican.

In general, there are more Republican vacancies this year than usual. That's partly because the position has become a significant stepping stone for ambitious politicians. Secretary of States 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 ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House.

The breakdown of incumbents running for another term is more evenly divided between the parties -- nine for each party. 

Before we get to the ratings, and analysis below the map, a couple of notes:

  • 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.
  • For ratings of every major statewide race, click here.


Safe Republican

Idaho Secretary of State Lawrence Denney (R)

In this solidly red state, the Republican has the upper hand. Denney is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent, Jill Humble, a nurse.

South Dakota: Open seat; held by Shantel Krebs (R)

The GOP chose State Auditor Steve Barnett as its nominee at the state party convention in June. Despite a surprisingly competitive gubernatorial race, Barnett should win his race handily against rancher Alexandra Frederick in this Republican state.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R)

Merrill is seen as personable and has traveled widely around the state. He is expected to defeat his little-known Democratic opponent, business consultant and activist Heather Milam, easily in November.

Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan (R)

Buchanan, a onetime state House speaker, was appointed secretary of state after Republican Ed Murray resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Buchanan should cruise to victory against Democratic state Rep. James Byrd in this deep red state.

Nebraska: Open seat; held by John Gale (R)

Nebraska is a solidly red state. Therefore, Republican Bob Evnen, an attorney and former member of the state board of education, is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent, Spencer Danner, who has served as director of human rights and relations for the city of Omaha.

South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond (R)

Hammond, who is running for a fifth term, turned back a spirited primary challenge by state Rep. Josh Putnam, who had called on Hammond to resign after his office's failure to affix the state seal to more than 100 pieces of legislation. The state's Republican leanings are probably too strong for that to matter in November, when Hammond faces Army veteran Melvin Whittenburg.

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger (R) (shift from likely Republican)

Despite some early fireworks, this race has since calmed. It all began when Jaeger, who has held the office since 1992, was defeated at the state GOP convention by businessman Will Gardner. But a little later, 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. Gardner withdrew, and Jaeger announced that he would run in the general election as an independent. In this red state, he is the heavy favorite against Democratic state Rep. Josh Boschee.


Likely Republican

Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson (R)

Lawson is seeking her second full term and is a favorite to win reelection against Democratic attorney Jim Harper. While insiders are giving Harper kudos as a candidate, he's not getting much press for his efforts thanks to the U.S. Senate race that's under way. Besides, no Democrat has won the office since 1990.

Arkansas: Open seat; held by Mark Martin (R)

Commissioner of State Lands John Thurston 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. Still, the GOP's partisan edge in the state makes her bid decidedly uphill.

Louisiana Secretary of State R. Kyle Ardoin (R)

Louisiana has an all-party special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation in April of GOP Secretary of State Tom Schedler amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Ardoin, who was appointed to succeed him, is running against several other current and former Republican state legislators, as well as a Democratic former secretary of state. A winner may not emerge until the Dec. 8 runoff, but down-ballot races in Louisiana have mostly gone Republican in recent years, so it would be a surprise if this contest didn't follow suit.


Lean Republican

Arizona: Open seat: held by Michele Reagan (R) (shift from likely Republican)

Reagan, a first-term incumbent, lost the GOP primary to businessman Steve Gaynor, who faces state Sen. Katie Hobbs in November. Neither candidate is especially well-known in the state, which suggests that whichever party has a better Election Day overall will carry their secretary of state nominee over the finish line. With Republican Gov. Doug Ducey leading in the gubernatorial race, that gives Gaynor the edge going in.

Georgia: Open seat; held by Brian Kemp (R)

Former state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, won a runoff and the right to face Democratic former U.S. Rep. John Barrow in the general election. History suggests that the GOP holds the edge, but the presence of Libertarian candidate Smythe Duvall could cost Raffensperger a few points.

Another wild card is whether the gubernatorial candidacy of Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African-American woman, brings a different mix of voters to the polls. For now, we're keeping this contest as lean Republican.



Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate (R) (shift from lean Republican)

Deidre DeJear, a former Barack Obama outreach organizer, won the Democratic primary and the right to take on Pate. DeJear has attracted national attention, including support from Obama, who won the state twice. If Iowa Democrats remained more energized than they were in 2016, DeJear could pull off a victory.

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams (R)

Williams has been reasonably popular, but Democratic attorney and activist Jena Griswold is mounting a credible challenge. This race has attracted little attention statewide, which helps the GOP incumbent, as does the long historical odds: Democrats have not won the office in six decades.

Ohio: Open seat; held by Jon Husted (R) (shift from lean Republican)

This already tight race -- between Republican state Sen. Frank LaRose and Democratic state Rep. Kathleen Clyde -- has tightened even more since our last handicapping. Republicans have a history of winning down-ballot statewide races in Ohio, but Clyde has done what she needs to do on the fundraising front. Turnout and the gubernatorial race will help put one of the two candidates over the top in this tossup race.

Kansas: Open seat; held by Kris Kobach (R) (shift from lean Republican)

Down-ballot races in Kansas are traditionally tough for Democrats, but the 2018 race may prove an exception. GOP state Rep. Scott Schwab handily won a competitive primary and stands as the favorite. Still, Democrat Brian McClendon is putting up a strong challenge. A longtime Google and Uber executive, McClendon has put together a well-funded and professional campaign, relying heavily on social media. With a competitive governor's race and two close congressional contests bringing Democrats to the polls, it's possible that McClendon could succeed Kobach, who presided over eight years of controversy. This contest moves to tossup.

Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske (R)

This race will tilt depending on the strength of a possible blue wave. Cegavske is facing Democratic state Assemblyman Nelson Araujo. We're keeping this one in tossup.


Lean Democratic

Michigan: Open seat; held by Ruth Johnson (R)

Former Wayne State University Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson faces Republican Mary Treder Lang, an accountant and Eastern Michigan University regent. The campaign has been overshadowed by the gubernatorial race, in which Democrat Gretchen Whitmer has held double-digit leads. That's a plus for Benson, who did the best of all the Democratic statewide candidates in 2010 even though she lost her secretary of state bid by about six points in a terrible Democratic year. Treder Lang is a credible GOP candidate, but Benson has the wind at her back.


Likely Democratic

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill (D) (shift from lean Democratic)

Republicans were hoping that voter angst over outgoing Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy's two terms would spill over into other statewide contests. But with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ned Lamont ahead by margins in the high single digits, that scenario looks less likely than before.

What's more, Republican Susan Chapman, a former first selectwoman, has struggled to raise money. We're moving this contest to likely Democratic.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) (shift from lean Democratic)

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. It doesn't hurt that the last Republican to hold the office, Dianna Duran, went to prison on fraud and embezzlement charges.

The Republican challenger is Gavin Clarkson, who has an interesting background -- college professor, former Interior Department official, anti-abortion activist and member of the Choctaw Nation. But the race has attracted little attention, and Clarkson is having a hard time getting his message out. This contest moves to likely Democratic.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D)

With a full ballot of competitive races in Minnesota this year, this race has struggled to garner attention. John Howe, a former Republican state senator and congressional candidate, is the GOP nominee, but the incumbent, Simon, remains favored to win another term.


Safe Democratic

Wisconsin Secretary of State Doug LaFollette (D)

LaFollette, who is running for an 11th term, is an institution. He faces former Menasha Town Supervisor Jay Schroeder in the low-profile general election. Republicans will need to hope that incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker's vaunted turnout machine helps carry Schroeder to victory.

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. She ran unopposed in the primary and will face Trump-aligned Republican Pat Cortellessa, who is best known for his two unsuccessful campaigns against the late Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci. The well-financed and popular Gorbea remains the overwhelming favorite.

Massachusetts Secretary of State Bill Galvin (D)

Boston City Councilman Josh Zakim failed to unseat long-serving incumbent Galvin in the primary. Galvin now faces Republican Anthony Amore, a former federal agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Aviation Administration. In this deep blue state in a potentially deep blue election year, Galvin should have no trouble winning another term.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos (D)

In this blue state, Condos should easily defeat perennial Republican candidate H. Brooke Paige.

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. Republican Mark Meuser, a conservative activist, is advocating for the purging of voter rolls, which won't be popular in deep blue California.

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.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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