Handicapping the 2020 Secretary of State Elections
November 22, 2019 | Louis Jacobson
Especially in a presidential year, secretary of state elections don’t get much attention. But the position carries a lot of weight behind the scenes. In most states, the secretary of state runs elections, a task that in this day and age can mean everything from implementing controversial voting rules to running high-stakes recounts to defending against foreign cyber-intrusions.
For 2020, seven secretary of state elections are on tap. For now, at least, four of them appear to be competitive.
Prior to the 2019 elections, Republicans held 25 secretary of state positions and Democrats held 22. (Alaska, Hawaii and Utah do not have a secretary of state office.)
The results of the 2019 elections will push the GOP’s lead a little higher, as Republican Michael Adams seized a Democratic-held open seat in Kentucky. In the other two 2019 races, the GOP retained a Republican-held seat in Mississippi and saw GOP incumbent Kyle Ardoin win reelection in Louisiana.
All told, next year the GOP is poised to hold 26 seats, to 21 for the Democrats.
The GOP edge is even wider once you set aside appointed secretary of state offices and look just at the 35 elected secretaries. Accounting for the 2019 election results, the GOP will have a 21-14 lead over the Democrats in the elected secretary of state positions next year.
Among the four competitive seats in 2020, three are currently held by Republicans – incumbents in West Virginia (a solidly red state) and Washington state (a solidly blue state), plus an open seat in Montana. One Democratic-held seat begins the cycle as competitive — North Carolina’s — though that contest could become less so as the cycle goes on.
One additional seat, a Republican-held office in Oregon, is coming open and the state’s blue leanings have led us to rate it Likely Democratic.
The nature of the competitive seats in 2020 gives Democrats a shot at whittling down the GOP edge, though probably not enough to flip the secretary of state seats to majority Democratic control.
In the handicapping below, the seats within each category are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.
Missouri: Incumbent Jay Ashcroft, Republican
Ashcroft — the son of John Ashcroft, the former Missouri governor, Senator, and U.S. Attorney General — won the secretary of state post easily in 2016, which was an especially strong Republican campaign cycle in the state. He’s a prohibitive favorite again in 2020. Ashcroft is unlikely to face primary opposition, and his only announced Democratic challenger so far is Yinka Faleti, a Nigerian immigrant and West Point graduate who has worked as a United Way executive and prosecutor but has not run for office before. If Faleti, 43, somehow manages to win, he would become the first African-American to win statewide office in Missouri. But Ashcroft should win another term in advance of an expected future gubernatorial bid.
West Virginia: Incumbent Mac Warner, Republican
West Virginia’s 2020 secretary of state contest has turned into something of a grudge match, with Democrat Natalie Tennant, the previous holder of the office for two terms, announcing in mid-November that she is running for her old seat. She’s facing Warner, the Republican who ousted Tennant in 2016. There is no love lost between the two, especially after Warner fired a dozen employees who had worked under Tennant; the state later settled lawsuits by most of them for a collective $3 million in compensation. Tennant is probably the strongest candidate the Democrats could have secured for this race, but she lost a statewide bid in 2014, when she challenged Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. West Virginia’s strong lurch towards the GOP in recent years means she starts as an underdog.
Montana: Open seat (Republican Corey Stapleton is running for the U.S. House)
Montana’s secretary of state race is relatively unformed as yet – filing begins in January – but it should be competitive. The open-seat contest has drawn the interest of a handful of Republicans, including Senate president and former House speaker Scott Sales; Bowen Greenwood, the elected clerk of the state Supreme Court and former Montana GOP executive director; deputy secretary of state Christi Jacobsen; and state Rep. Forrest Mandeville. The one Democrat eyeing the race is former state Rep. and current state Sen. Bryce Bennett. Bennett would probably start at a disadvantage in this red state since he represents a relatively progressive Missoula-based district. Another plus for whoever becomes the GOP nominee is the presence on the ballot of President Donald Trump, who won the state by 20 points in 2016.
Washington state: Incumbent Kim Wyman, Republican
The secretary of state position is a top target for Washington state Democrats in 2020 because it’s one of just two offices that the party does not already hold in the state, along with state treasurer. GOP control of the office is not a new development: The last time a Democrat won was in 1964. Wyman is running for a third term, and despite the current era of high partisan polarization, she has had a reasonably uncontroversial tenure and won reelection in 2016 by a 10-point margin. Democrat Jeff Winmill, a 41-year-old attorney and former campaign staffer for Barack Obama, is running, but he’s only lived in the state for two years. Other Democrats might get in the race, but Wyman’s 2016 challenger, Tina Podlodowski, now chairs the state Democratic Party and is not considered likely to run. Wyman will be a strong candidate, but she’ll be swimming against a strong Democratic tide, especially in a presidential year. For now, we’ll rate this a tossup.
North Carolina: Incumbent Elaine Marshall, Democrat
North Carolina’s secretary of state contest has attracted little public attention, perhaps not surprisingly given that the state will have competitive races for governor, U.S. Senate, and president next year. Marshall won her first election as secretary of state in 1996 and is something of an institution; assuming she runs again, she’d be the favorite. Two Republicans are in the race: Gaston County Commissioner Chad Brown and businessman Michael LaPaglia, who lost to Marshall in 2016 by about five points. To be cautious, we’re rating this lean Democratic, but if the field stays as is, it could move to likely Democratic.
Oregon: Open seat (Republican Bev Clarno is not running)
Clarno was appointed secretary of state by Gov. Kate Brown in March 2019 after Dennis Richardson, the Republican office-holder, died of cancer. Clarno is not running for a full term. The Democratic primary field is wide open. Two sitting lawmakers are giving up their seats to run: state Sen. Mark Hass, a former TV reporter who’s been in the legislature for two decades, and state Rep. Jennifer Williamson of Portland, who has served as House majority leader. Other candidates include Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who ran against GOP Rep. Greg Walden last year, and Cameron Smith, an ex-Marine who previously headed the state Department of Consumer and Business Services and the state Department of Veterans Affairs. On the Republican side, the only name receiving attention so far is Clarno’s deputy, Rich Vial, a former Republican state representative. In this blue state in a presidential year, Democrats will be in the driver’s seat.
Vermont: Incumbent Jim Condos, Democrat
Condos is running for a sixth term in this solidly blue state with no announced Republican opponent. This seat is as solid as they get.