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Democrats on Defense in 2015-2016 Attorneys General Races

Already in the minority, Democratic attorneys general face upcoming elections in a tough mix of states. We break down the likely outcome of each.

Mississippi AG Jim Hood (D) is up for re-election this year.
(AP/Rogelio V. Solis)
This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

Observers often ignore attorneys general (AG) contests, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good races. At this point, it appears that almost half of the AG elections in the 2015-2016 cycle could be exciting.

While slightly more than half of the AG contests in 2015 and 2016 look solid for the incumbent party -- four of them currently held by Republicans and three by Democrats -- the other six are tossups. They include a Republican-held open seat in Indiana, along with Democratic-held open seats in Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and an embattled Democratic-held incumbent seat in Mississippi.

Democrats can take some comfort in the likelihood of a favorable turnout in 2016, but on the downside, the AG elections next year are in a tough mix of states, including the red-leaning battlegrounds of Missouri and North Carolina. In addition, each of the three contests taking place in 2015 are in difficult terrain for the Democrats -- Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Democrats have eight seats to defend during this cycle, five of which are tossups. By contrast, the GOP is defending just five seats, with just one tossup. Currently, the GOP holds 27 AG offices, with 23 for the Democrats. Republican wins in the Kentucky and Mississippi AG races in 2015 could boost the GOP lead to 29-21, with the possibility of three more gains in 2016, pushing the Republican edge to 32-18. Because the GOP has only one AG seat in significant jeopardy this cycle, the Democrats would be fortunate to keep what they have now.

Overall, there are 13 races in 2015-16 (the 2015 races are in italics). They are categorized as being either safe Republican, likely Republican, tossup, 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.

Safe Republican

Utah AG Sean Reyes (R)

The previous two Utah AGs, Republicans Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, are facing trial for corruption-related charges, so Reyes -- initially appointed to succeed Swallow and then the winner of a special election -- has had a lot of work to do to improve his office’s image. He appears to have done a reasonable job, and his background -- a Mormon Republican of Filipino and Hispanic descent -- makes him popular in his party. So far, Reyes has managed to hold off potential electoral challengers, so unless something unexpected emerges, he should be fine. 

Louisiana AG Buddy Caldwell (R) -- 2015 election

The main battle in this 2015 race is occurring within the Republican Party, without much of a role for the Democratic candidates. Caldwell, a Democrat-turned-Republican, is a two-term incumbent but is hardly safe in his quest for a new term. He’s facing a tough challenge from Tea Party-aligned former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, who lost his House seat due to redistricting. Landry has been picking up important endorsements, but Caldwell has the backing of many sheriffs, a key constituency. The contest between Caldwell and Landry looks close, according to recent polls. A third Republican, Marty Maley, is in the race but stuck in the single digits. If either of the two announced Democrats finishes in the top two in the Oct. 24 open primary -- frontrunner Ike Jackson or Gerald “Geri” Broussard-Baloney -- the race still wouldn’t be that competitive against whichever Republican makes it to the Nov. 21 runoff. In classic Louisiana form, the challengers are lobbing charges of cronyism at Caldwell while the incumbent says that his opponents are simply looking for government paychecks and wouldn’t even cut it as his assistants. Jackson, meanwhile, called Caldwell “as dumb as the bottom of my shoe.”

Likely Republican

Montana AG Tim Fox (R)

In his first term, Fox steered a moderate-to-conservative course and eschewed aggressive partisanship, sometimes even rebuffing conservative elements of his own party. Fox has been generally well-liked, and that’s kept challengers away. The Democrats are scrambling to find a candidate, but their prospects are diminishing.

West Virginia AG Patrick Morrisey (R)

Electoral trends favor the Republicans in West Virginia these days, and there’s little evidence that Morrisey -- who succeeded a Democratic AG four years ago -- has done anything to seriously harm his re-election changes. The contest has been slow to develop, however, so if the Democrats find a decent challenger, then this contest could become more competitive. For now, though, Morrisey is secure.


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

Former Republican AG Steve Carter is expected to run to succeed his longtime confidant Zoeller. Carter was popular during his tenure for pioneering the Do Not Call Registry, which helped reduce telemarketing. Randy Head, a well-liked two-term state senator and former county prosecutor, is interested in the race. The Democratic field includes retired Lake County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Arredondo, the longest serving elected Latino state trial judge in the country when he retired from the bench in 2010. Arredondo is respected among members of the state’s judicial community. Democratic state Sen. Karen Tallian, on the party’s liberal end, is also a possible candidate. Carter's argument centers on continuity and experience. Arredondo, for his part, will need to overcome skepticism about Lake County (which includes Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago) and its history of corruption. Unknown for now is how voters will be feeling about GOP Gov. Mike Pence, and whether they prefer to steer the AG’s office away from the hot-button national topics it has taken up, such as immigration, public prayer, gay rights and the Affordable Care Act. 

Kentucky: Open seat; AG Jack Conway (D) is running for governor -- 2015 election

As outgoing Democratic AG Conway fights in a tight gubernatorial contest, the open seat he left behind has turned into a tough race as well. Democrat Andy Beshear is a son of outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, while Republican Whitney Westerfield chairs the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Beshear initially had a modest lead, but the contest has narrowed as Election Day draws near. Recent polls have the race neck and neck, with a substantial number of undecided voters; the outcome of the gubernatorial race could help determine the winner of the AG contest in a state that leans Republican in federal races but Democratic in state-level offices. 

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

Both parties are looking at contested primaries in August 2016, though none of the candidates are well-known statewide. For the Democrats, it’s Teresa Hensley, a former county prosecutor who lost a U.S. House race in 2012, against Jake Zimmerman, a locally popular St. Louis County assessor. Hensley is from the western part of the state and Zimmerman is from the east. The race is wide open. The Republican field includes Kurt Schaefer, an outspoken state senator from Boone County, and Josh Hawley, a University of Missouri law professor who clerked for Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts and played a role in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case. The race for the GOP nomination looks poised to become a loud and well-funded contest.

Pennsylvania: Expected open seat; AG Kathleen Kane (D) is facing criminal charges

Kane’s first term has been disastrous. The state suspended Kane’s law license due to criminal charges against her. She can’t run if she doesn’t get the license back. Even if the suspension is somehow lifted before the election and she ends up seeking a second term, she’s damaged goods. The most talked-about Democrat is Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro; other possible Democratic contenders include John Morganelli, the Northampton County District Attorney who lost the 2008 general election for attorney general; Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., the Allegheny County District Attorney; and Jack Stollsteimer, a former Delaware County and federal prosecutor who served as deputy chief counsel to the state Treasury Department. The GOP field could include state Sen. John Rafferty and state Rep. Todd Stephens, both from Montgomery County. Another candidate could be former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Philadelphia District Attorney Ron Castille. The race is completely open.

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

Cooper’s decision to seek a promotion after four terms means big changes for his office. Cooper is a Democrat who managed to roll up solid wins even as the state moved toward the GOP. Two Republicans have announced to succeed him -- state Sen. Buck Newton and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill. Newton is a modest favorite in the primary due to his connections with party powerbrokers in Raleigh. The expected Democratic frontrunner is state Sen. Josh Stein, who worked in the AG’s office earlier in his career as deputy attorney general for consumer protection. Fayetteville lawyer Tim Dunn could also run in the Democratic primary. Whoever the nominees turn out to be, the general election for AG will probably be shaped by the presidential and gubernatorial contests.  

Mississippi: AG Jim Hood (D) -- 2015 election

This 2015 race may be the most intriguing contest on this list, because it could end up being the last stand of an extremely rare figure -- a statewide elected Democrat in the Deep South. Hood, elected three times with relative ease, faces a well-funded and well-connected former federal prosecutor Mike Hurst in the general election. Pro-Hurst attack ads have been designed to make Hood seem weak and possibly corrupt, as well as ineffective in securing adequate compensation for Mississippians affected by the BP oil spill. Hurst has also criticized Hood for moving his base of operations from Jackson to his home three hours north, and for not being aggressive enough in challenging "federal overreach” and rooting out public corruption. Hood has been able to bolster his reputation by portraying himself as an aggressive prosecutor. He used his office to fight Internet crimes against children and argues he’s someone who, despite his partisan affiliation, supports traditional Mississippi values. If Hood doesn’t fall this time, Hurst will be young enough to be a strong candidate for the AG spot when the incumbent retires.

Likely Democratic

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

This will be the first open-seat AG election in the state since 1984. Sorrell, was originally appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Howard Dean to succeed Republican Jeff Amestoy. Sorrell coasted to re-election after that, but in 2012, T.J. Donovan -- the well-known state's attorney in Chittenden County, the state's largest -- challenged Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Donovan lost the primary but effectively set himself up as Sorrell’s successor. There are no other Democratic candidates. The Republican field has not yet solidified, but Donovan already has the support of some GOP legislators, businesspeople and donors. 

Washington state: AG Bob Ferguson (D)

The contest has been slow to develop, but Ferguson hasn’t self-destructed, and in a blue state in a presidential year, he’s likely headed toward another term.

Safe Democratic

Oregon: AG Ellen Rosenblum (D)

Rosenblum declared a year ago that she would seek re-election, and there's been no sign that anyone will run against her. Indeed, there hasn't been a serious Republican candidate for Oregon AG in about two decades.

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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