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An Updated Look at Handicapping the 2020 Secretary of State Elections

With this year’s upheaval, the seven Secretary of State elections in November aren’t garnering much attention from the media or the public. But quietly, the number of highly competitive contests has shrunk.

In our last Secretary of State handicapping last November, we rated four races as competitive — either Toss Ups or leaning towards one party. Now there are just two: Montana and Washington, both of which we rate Lean Republican.

We’ve moved West Virginia’s GOP-held seat from Lean Republican to Likely Republican; North Carolina’s Democratic-held seat from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic; and Washington’s Republican-held seat from Toss Up to Lean Republican.

The only other Secretary of State office we currently rate as competitive is the GOP-held seat in Montana, which remains in the Lean Republican category

As for the others, the Republican-held seat in Missouri remains Solid Republican. The open seat in Oregon remains Likely Democratic, and the Democratic-held seat in Vermont remains Solid Democratic.

In most states, the Secretary of State runs elections. This task can mean everything from implementing controversial voting rules to running high-stakes recounts to defending against foreign cyber-intrusions.

The GOP currently holds 26 Secretary of State offices to 21 for the Democrats. Three states have no Secretary of State: Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah.

The lineup of competitive seats in 2020 gives Democrats a shot at whittling down the GOP edge, though not enough to flip 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.


State Secretary of State Ratings

Missouri: Jay Ashcroft (R)
Solid Republican

Ashcroft — the son of John Ashcroft, the former Missouri governor, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Attorney General — won the Secretary of State post easily in 2016 and is the prohibitive favorite in 2020. Ashcroft escaped a primary and in the general will face Democrat Yinka Faleti, a first-time candidate. Faleti has a compelling background —he’s a Nigerian immigrant and West Point graduate who has worked as a United Way executive, a lawyer with the firm Bryan Cave, and as executive director of Forward Through Ferguson, a policy nonprofit focusing on policing and economic justice in Ferguson, Mo. But in this increasingly Republican state, Ashcroft is well-positioned to win another term on his way to an expected future gubernatorial bid.

West Virginia: Mac Warner (R)
Likely Republican (shift from Lean Republican)

Warner will face Democrat Natalie Tennant, whom he ousted in 2016 after Tennant had served two terms. But while Tennant is probably the strongest candidate the Democrats could have secured for this race, she lost a statewide bid in 2014, when she challenged Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. West Virginia has only become more Republican since then. Meanwhile, Warner has had a good couple of months, as the coronavirus has given election administrators a higher profile. West Virginia delayed its primary election and expanded absentee balloting under Warner’s watch, and it appears the election went off without any significant problems. In addition, before the emergence of the virus, Warner attracted notice for unveiling a voting app for active-duty members of the military. All in all, this should win the incumbent some goodwill from voters. We’re shifting this contest from Lean Republican to Likely Republican.

Montana: Open seat (Republican Corey Stapleton lost a primary for the U.S. House)
Lean Republican

Montana’s open-seat contest will pit Republican deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen against Democratic state Sen. Bryce Bennett. The relatively strong Democratic ticket in this red state this fall — including outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock running for U.S. Senate — could be a plus for Bennett, who represents a relatively progressive district based in Missoula. However, in the June primary, some 65,000 more votes were cast for the six Republican candidates than for the lone Democrat, which suggests a modest edge for Jacobsen. Bennett’s best shot is to highlight Jacobsen’s tenure in the Secretary of State’s office, which came under fire from an auditor’s report that Stapleton had utilized state vehicles for personal use. But that argument won’t be a slam-dunk. We’re keeping this race at Lean Republican.

Washington: Kim Wyman (R)
Lean Republican (shift from Toss Up)

The Secretary of State position is a top target for Washington 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. But it’s far from a certainty.

Wyman is running for a third term, and despite the current era of high partisan polarization, she has had an uncontroversial tenure and won reelection in 2016 by a 10-point margin. Wyman will be well-funded, and she seems to have weathered the coronavirus crisis well, working on vote-by-mail issues with colleagues in other states from both parties.

Wyman will face Democratic state Rep. and former Seattle Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton. Tarleton hopes that the Democratic tide this fall is strong enough to sweep out even a well-regarded Republican. But the last time a Democrat won the office was in 1964. Pending stronger signs that Wyman is vulnerable to a Democratic tsunami, we’re moving this race from Toss Up to Lean Republican. 

North Carolina: Elaine Marshall (D)
Likely Democratic (shift from Lean Democratic)

North Carolina’s Secretary of State contest has attracted little attention, perhaps not surprisingly given that the state will have competitive races for governor, U.S. Senate, and president next year. (The office also doesn’t oversee elections; an independent state board of elections does.)

Marshall won her first election as Secretary of State in 1996 and is something of an institution. She’ll face businessman and first-time candidate E.C. Sykes, who’s running as a strong social conservative. Sykes volunteered for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential bid, and Cruz returned the favor with a visit to North Carolina on behalf of Sykes. 

Wide name recognition in a low-interest election should be an asset for Marshall. She’s also benefited from the general boost that Democrats have seen in North Carolina’s senatorial, gubernatorial, and presidential contests in recent months. We’re moving this race from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic.

Oregon: Open seat (Republican Bev Clarno is not running)
Likely Democratic

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. 

State Sen. Shemia Fagan won the Democratic primary, narrowly defeating a more senior legislator and former TV journalist, state Sen. Mark Hass, on the strength of her fundraising and support from public employee unions, who opposed Haas’ vote for a 2019 bill on retiree benefits. Observers say that the party should be able to heal its rifts heading into the general election.

Fagan will face Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher, who easily won the Republican nomination. There’s also at least one independent candidacy of note, that of former Republican state Rep. Rich Vial, who was the deputy to Clarno until he resigned in January. 

The outlook for this race hasn’t changed much. In this blue state in a presidential year, Democrats will be in the driver’s seat.

Vermont: Jim Condos (D)
Solid Democratic

Condos will easily win a sixth term in this solidly blue state. He only faces frequent candidates H. Brooke Paige on the Republican ballot line and Cris Ericson on the Progressive line.