Secretary of State and Attorney General: What to Watch for Next Week in Key Statewide Contests
A Commentary By Louis Jacobson
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— In our final pre-election handicapping of key down-ballot contests this year, we see 11 secretary of state races and 12 state attorney general races as competitive.
— The races attracting the most attention nationally, understandably, are those that involve Republican nominees who have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. Whether such candidates can win this year in such presidential battleground states as Arizona and Nevada could have a big impact on the 2024 presidential race.
— It remains to be seen whether these Trump-aligned candidates can ride the Republican midterm tailwind to victory, or whether GOP voters and GOP-leaning independents decide to pick and choose which Republicans they vote for this year.
The key Secretary of State and AG races
Rarely before this year have down-ballot races such as secretary of state and attorney general attracted so much interest from political professionals and the general public. But growing concerns over how those positions will craft and oversee voting rules, and how they will steer post-election legal challenges, has made these contests of intense importance.
As we have noted previously, handicapping these contests — always tricky because of a lack of polling and media attention — has been an even murkier pursuit than ever this year. That’s because several key states — including but not limited to Arizona, Nevada, Michigan and New Mexico — have a matchup that consists of a mainstream Democrat against a Republican nominee who is aligned with Donald Trump and his belief that the 2020 elections were rigged.
The key question for us this entire cycle has been whether Republicans and Republican-leaning independents would vote loyally for these Republicans — despite their controversial views — or whether they would pick and choose between the Republicans they’re comfortable with and those with whom they aren’t.
We don’t have an answer to this question yet, but we do feel comfortable in saying that we can’t simply conclude that a decisive number of Republican voters will reject these candidates out of hand.
For instance, in Arizona, the final OH Predictive Insights survey of the cycle showed Democrat Adrian Fontes leading Republican Mark Finchem by a 48%-42% margin in the secretary of state race. In the attorney general race, Democrat Kris Mayes was leading Republican Abraham Hamadeh, 45%-42%, in the attorney general contest.
And in Nevada, the same firm’s final pre-election survey found Democrat Cisco Aguilar leading Republican Jim Marchant for secretary of state 41%-38%, while Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford led Republican Sigal Chattah in his bid for reelection, 43%-35%.
All of these polls show a sizable share of undecided voters, which suggests that the races could go either way, despite the narrow polling lead Democrats currently enjoy.
Let’s look at the secretary of state races first, and then the attorney general contests.
Secretary of State
Overall, there are 27 secretary of state contests this cycle, 16 of which we deem to be not competitive. (See the full list of non-competitive races here.)
Of the 11 competitive races, we rate 2 as Leans Republican, 4 as Toss-ups, and 5 as Leans Democratic.
The Leans Republican contests, in Georgia and Iowa, involve GOP incumbents who are considered mainstream conservatives. In fact, in Georgia, incumbent Brad Raffensperger has drawn the ire of Trump for his efforts to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the state 2 years ago; in the GOP primary earlier this year, he beat back a Trump-backed challenger with relative ease.
The Leans Democratic contests generally involve Democratic incumbents running in blue or bluish states: Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Washington. The Democrats’ reelection prospects are aided somewhat by having Trump-aligned GOP nominees as their opponents, especially in Michigan and Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the Toss-up category includes 4 states, including the Nevada and Arizona contests noted above.
One of the other Toss-up contests is something of a surprise: Indiana, which is ordinarily a solidly red state. However, Diego Morales, who defeated the sitting Republican for the nomination, has faced a string of controversies involving his military and work record, his campaign spending, and allegations of sexual harassment. Indiana political commentator Brian Howey wrote recently that the level of bad press Morales has gotten is “historic.”
Morales’ Democratic opponent, attorney Destiny Wells, isn’t well known, and the midterm environment isn’t friendly to Democrats. But she has served in the military overseas and has been on TV with spots knocking her opponent. This makes it a race to watch.
The final Toss-up contest is in always-close Wisconsin, where Doug La Follette — who has served as secretary of state for all but 4 years since 1975 — faces the fight of his 82-year-old life against Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck. However, it’s important to note that in Wisconsin, the secretary of state’s office does not oversee elections, which lowers the political stakes somewhat.
Washington state has an unusual contest. Democratic incumbent Steve Hobbs was tapped by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to succeed Kim Wyman, a Republican who took a position with the Biden administration. (This is a special election; the office is usually elected in presidential years.) Hobbs is the first Democrat to hold the office in 56 years. Julie Anderson is running as an independent against Hobbs, with no Republican option on the ballot. The contest has produced some Democratic infighting over how hard to go after the partisan and ideological affiliations of Anderson, a county auditor. A late October poll from SurveyUSA put Hobbs up 40%-29%.
Here is the full list of competitive secretary of state races, based on interviews with state and national experts as well as a review of polling data and media coverage. In addition to sorting the contests into Leans Republican, Toss-up, and Leans Democratic categories, we list the races in descending order, from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic, including within each rating category. If our analysis is accurate, we should be able to draw a line in the middle, above which all races would have went for Republicans and below which all races would have went for Democrats.
Georgia: Incumbent Brad Raffensperger (R) vs. Bee Nguyen (D)
Iowa: Incumbent Paul Pate (R) vs. Joel Miller (D)
Indiana: Open seat (Holli Sullivan, R, was defeated for renomination). Diego Morales (R) vs. Destiny Wells (D)
Arizona: Open seat (Katie Hobbs, D, is running for governor). Adrian Fontes (D) vs. Mark Finchem (R)
Nevada: Open seat (Barbara Cegavske, R, is term-limited). Cisco Aguilar (D) vs. Jim Marchant (R)
Wisconsin: Doug La Follette (D) vs. Amy Loudenbeck (R)
Minnesota: Incumbent Steve Simon (D) vs. Kim Crockett (R)
Michigan: Incumbent Jocelyn Benson (D) vs. Kristina Karamo (R)
New Mexico: Incumbent Maggie Toulouse Oliver (D) vs. Audrey Trujillo (R)
Washington: Incumbent Steve Hobbs (D) vs. Julie Anderson (I)
Colorado: Incumbent Jena Griswold (D) vs. Pam Anderson (R)
In the races for attorney general, we see 12 competitive races out of the 30 being contested this year. (The list of non-competitive races can be found here.)
Of the 12 competitive races, we consider 3 to be in the Leans Republican category, 5 in the Toss-up category, and 4 in the Leans Democratic category.
The Leans Republican races come in various flavors.
In Georgia, incumbent Republican Chris Carr faces Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan. While Jordan is a credible challenger, the race has been thoroughly overshadowed by this year’s marquee races for Senate and governor, making it hard for Jordan to get her message out.
In Idaho, Lawrence Wasden, a long-serving incumbent and establishment favorite, lost a primary to former U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador after he’d experienced frequent tensions with GOP legislators. Some Republicans went on to endorse Labrador’s Democratic opponent, Boise attorney Tom Arkoosh. This race appears competitive despite Idaho’s strong GOP leanings.
And in Texas, incumbent Republican Ken Paxton will see whether his party affiliation is strong enough in this generally red state to overcome a string of controversies, including an indictment for alleged securities fraud and an FBI investigation over abuse of office. He faces Democratic attorney Rochelle Garza.
The Lean Democratic races are varied as well.
Iowa leans Republican these days, but Democratic incumbent Tom Miller, who has served in the position all but 4 years since his first election in 1978, seems to be well-positioned to secure another term. The Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed Miller leading his Republican challenger, Brenna Bird, by 16 points.
In Michigan, Democratic incumbent Dana Nessel leads Trump-aligned Republican Matthew DePerno, although some polling has been close. Their contest is especially bitter because Nessel requested a special prosecutor to oversee a conspiracy probe into whether DePerno and other Michigan residents secured illegal access to election tabulators as part of a voter fraud investigation.
The 2 remaining Lean Democratic contests, in Colorado and New Mexico, pit mainstream Democrats against mainstream Republicans in relatively blue states.
Of the 5 Toss-up races, 3 involve a Trump-aligned GOP nominee: Arizona and Nevada, as mentioned above, and Kansas.
The Republican nominee in the Kansas race is former secretary of state Kris Kobach, who has spent his career aggressively focusing on alleged election fraud and illegal immigration, to the irritation of many Kansas voters in the center and the moderate right. During his last campaign, in 2018, Kobach’s weakness among moderate Republicans led to his loss of the governorship to moderate Democrat Laura Kelly. This year, Kobach faces Chris Mann, a former police officer who is now a prosecutor. Mann isn’t well known, but his background should make him credible for voters who don’t like Kobach.
In Wisconsin, incumbent Democrat Josh Kaul faces Republican Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney in what is expected to be a close race, and one that will likely mirror the results of the competitive gubernatorial contest. It will be a key test of the resonance of abortion in politics, because Kaul along with Gov. Tony Evers are considered the last bulwarks against the reimposition of a pre-Roe vs. Wade law that bans abortion in the state.
The most endangered incumbent Democratic AG is Keith Ellison in Minnesota. Ellison’s progressive views, combined with rising concerns about crime, are complicating his quest for a second term against Jim Schultz, a mainstream Republican. While Ellison had led by 6 points in the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll in September and by 2 points in its October poll, Schultz took the lead in the poll released on Nov. 1, 49%-42%, with 9% undecided.
Finally, as an aside, the New York gubernatorial race and a number of House races there have gotten more competitive in recent weeks, which could have an impact on the reelection bid of Democratic state Attorney General Tish James. But she appears to remain favored for a second term.
Here is the full list of competitive AG races, using the same format as the secretary of state ratings above.
Georgia: Incumbent Chris Carr (R) vs. Jen Jordan (D)
Idaho: Open seat (Lawrence Wasden, R, was defeated for renomination). Raúl Labrador (R) vs. Tom Arkoosh (D)
Texas: Incumbent Ken Paxton (R) vs. Rochelle Garza (D)
Minnesota: Incumbent Keith Ellison (D) vs. Jim Schultz (R)
Arizona: Open seat (Mark Brnovich, R, is term-limited). Abraham Hamadeh (R) vs. Kris Mayes (D)
Kansas: Open (Derek Schmidt, R, is running for governor). Kris Kobach (R) vs. Chris Mann (D)
Wisconsin: Incumbent Josh Kaul (D) vs. Eric Toney (R)
Nevada: Incumbent Aaron Ford (D) vs. Sigal Chattah (R)
Iowa: Incumbent Tom Miller (D) vs. Brenna Bird (R)
Michigan: Incumbent Dana Nessel (D) vs. Matthew DePerno (R)
New Mexico: Open (Hector Balderas, D, is term limited). Raúl Torrez (D) vs. Jeremy Gay (R)
Colorado: Incumbent Phil Weiser (D) vs. John Kellner (R)
Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the forthcoming Almanac of American Politics 2024. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.
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