An Updated Look at Handicapping the 2020 Attorney General Elections
June 12, 2020 | Louis Jacobson
The confluence of the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn, and anger over police brutality has overshadowed even the presidential race, so it's no surprise that down-ballot races have struggled to attract attention from the media and the public. Even so, several state attorney general races have developed enough that we're moving their ratings since our last analysis in October.
The fight for attorney general offices is politically important because AGs are the states' chief law enforcement officers. While the various AGs sometimes work across party lines on issues of common interest, they can also wield significant clout within their states on issues with heavy partisan charges, such as the multiple Republican AGs who sued to end the Affordable Care Act or the Democratic AGs who challenged President Donald Trump's policies on immigration. (Given the law enforcement connection, concerns over police brutality and urban unrest could shake up some of these races between now and Election Day, but it may take a while before these issues have a significant impact on these 2020 races.)
After the 2018 election, the Democrats briefly surged into a narrow lead in AG office control, but that disappeared with three losses in conservative southern states that held off-year elections in 2019. In the 2019 elections, the GOP held the Louisiana office and flipped Democratic-held seats in Kentucky and Mississippi.
Today, the GOP holds 26 AG offices and the Democrats hold 24. Looking only at elected AG posts, the Republicans also have a narrow edge — 22 Republican offices to the Democrats' 21.
This year, 10 states have attorney general elections. We rate five of these as solid: For the Republicans, Utah and Missouri (the latter shifting from our prior rating of Likely Republican), and Washington, Vermont, and Oregon for the Democrats. We rate Pennsylvania Likely Democratic.
This leaves four contests in our "competitive" categories: Lean Republican, Toss Up, or Lean Democratic.
We're keeping the GOP-held seat in West Virginia as Lean Republican and the Democratic-held seat in North Carolina as Lean Democratic.
The biggest changes in the current analysis come in our two Toss Up contests. In both Indiana and Montana, we are shifting the races from Lean Republican to Toss Up.
In Indiana, there's simply too much uncertainty about whether the nominee will be scandal-tarred incumbent Republican Curtis Hill, who would be more vulnerable than a generic Republican in this red state. Meanwhile, in Montana, GOP primary voters nominated a more conservative nominee with less crossover appeal, while Democrats are hoping to benefit from the tailwind of outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock's U.S. Senate bid this fall.
State AG Ratings
Below is a rundown of the ten races this fall. In the handicapping below, the seats within each category are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.
Utah: Sean Reyes (R)
Since our last assessment, Reyes's race for reelection has gotten a bit more challenging. In the state party convention, Reyes fell shy of the 60% threshold needed to avoid a primary, securing 56% against Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, the brother of former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt. Reyes now faces a June 30 primary against Leavitt. A UtahPolicy.com/KUTV 2News poll in mid-May had Reyes leading, 63%-37%. Whoever wins the primary will be a heavy general election favorite over Democratic attorney and 2004 AG nominee Greg Skordas.
Missouri: Eric Schmitt (R)
Solid Republican (shift from Likely Republican)
Schmitt's position has only improved in recent months as his fundraising edge has grown. Schmitt is running for his office for the first time in 2020; he was appointed to his post after Republican Josh Hawley won a U.S. Senate seat in 2018. Previously, Schmitt served as state treasurer and as a state senator. On the Democratic side, the primary favorite is Richard Finneran, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri who's now in private practice. In the primary, he faces Elad Gross, a young attorney and political newcomer. Either Democrat would be a distinct and vastly underfunded underdog in this increasingly Republican state. We're shifting this race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.
West Virginia: Patrick Morrisey (R)
In increasingly red West Virginia, Morrisey remains the favorite, but his failed challenge in 2018 to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin gives Democrats some hope that they can find a vulnerability to exploit this fall, such as his previous career as a lobbyist and his support for a lawsuit that would end the Affordable Care Act. On the night of the June 9 Democratic primary, two Democrats were locked in a race that was too close to call, between Sam Petsonk, an attorney for coal miners who previously worked as an aide to the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd and his appointed successor, Carte Goodwin, and Del. Issac Sponaugle, a prominent member of the chamber’s Democratic minority. Both candidates were probably to the left of most West Virginia voters, and it’s not certain that Morrisey’s battle scars from the 2018 contest will remain problematic for West Virginia voters. We’re keeping this race at Lean Republican, but we could see it moving to Likely Republican as the campaign progresses.
Indiana: Curtis Hill (R)
Toss Up (shift from Lean Republican)
This is easily the most unsettled AG race in the country in 2020. The reason: Hill has faced groping allegations by four women — three legislative staffers from different parties and chambers and one Democratic state lawmaker — at a 2018 post-session party. While Hill strongly denied the allegations and a special prosecutor believed he could not secure a conviction, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb, fellow GOP statewide officials, and legislative leaders called on him to resign. Eventually, Hill was slapped with a 30-day suspension of his law license by the Supreme Court, all of whose justices had been appointed by Republican governors, and by extension, a suspension from the office of attorney general. While Hill will automatically be reinstated in mid-June, that's not the end of the story for the Republican nomination.
Hill will have to beat out three rivals for the nomination at the state party convention: former U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, who was twice elected statewide as secretary of state; Decatur Co. prosecutor and county party chair Nate Harter; and attorney John Westercamp. Hill's strength in the convention will be among grassroots social conservatives, while the other candidates will be fighting for the same bloc as well as courting establishment support. Because of public health restrictions, the nomination will be decided in a mail vote to be counted July 10 instead of at convention this month, adding further unpredictability and giving whoever wins the nomination a late start.
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking at the AG race as their biggest target in Indiana in 2020, and they have two candidates: former two-term Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who more recently served as chancellor of the state community college's southwestern region, and state Sen. Karen Tallian, an outspoken figure on the environment, labor, and marijuana legalization. If Hill is the nominee, he could see dwindling support from suburban Republicans, especially women, giving Democrats a shot at the AG office even in red Indiana. The Democrats' chance of winning would probably be narrower if Hill is denied the nomination. Because of the uncertainty, we're moving this race from Lean Republican to Toss Up, though it could shift back depending on how the GOP nomination works out.
Montana: OPEN (Fox) (R)
Toss Up (shift from Lean Republican)
An already competitive AG contest got even more so with the results of the June 2 primary. The seat is coming open because two-term incumbent Tim Fox ran for governor (though he ended up losing the GOP primary to Rep. Greg Gianforte). In the Republican primary, former state House speaker Austin Knudsen, who had the support of the party's conservative base, defeated chief deputy attorney general Jon Bennion, a pragmatist who was seen as a stronger general-election candidate, by a somewhat bigger-than-expected margin. The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated Raph Graybill, the chief counsel to outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock, over attorney and state Rep. Kim Dudik. The 31-year-old Graybill has a sterling resume — a Rhodes scholarship and a Yale Law degree — and he comes from a prominent Montana political family. Will Graybill be able to peel off some disaffected Bennion supporters? He'll try, and while Montana remains a red state, the fact that Bullock (himself a former Montana AG) is running to unseat GOP Sen. Steve Daines could energize Democratic turnout this fall. At the same time, Knudsen is in tune with ballot-mates Trump and Gianforte, which is sure to energize the GOP base. We're moving this race from Lean Republican to Tossup.
North Carolina: Josh Stein (D)
Stein, who won a first term narrowly in 2016, faces Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2016 Republican primary for attorney general but won the three-way 2020 GOP primary. Both parties are pleased with their nominees, but North Carolina has a long list of competitive contests in the state this year, and the coronavirus pandemic has shifted public attention to Gov. Roy Cooper, who's running for reelection. So the AG race has been mostly quiet. As long as Democrats can run reasonably well at the top of the ticket, Stein should be able to win a second term.
Pennsylvania: Josh Shapiro (D)
Shapiro, currently in his first term, is considered a rising star in the state. He leads Republican Heather Heidelbaugh by a wide margin in fundraising, although Republicans are enthusiastic about her candidacy. In winning the office in 2016, Shapiro outperformed fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton as she was losing the state; with Democrats seemingly in a better position in the 2020 presidential race, Shapiro is favored to win another term.
Washington: Bob Ferguson (D)
Ferguson, who's currently in his second term, has been one of the nation's most aggressive attorneys general in challenging Trump administration policies in court. Despite the state's Democratic leanings, Republicans have three candidates vying to take him on: Matt Larkin, a former White House aide under President George W. Bush; Brett Rogers, a former police officer and correctional officer; and GOP activist Mike Vaska. A Public Policy Polling survey found Ferguson at 47% among likely voters in the all-party primary, with the three Republicans each in single digits and 32% undecided. Ferguson is still in the driver's seat, but his liberal record in office will attract intense attacks from whoever wins the GOP nomination.
Vermont: T.J. Donovan (D)
Donovan took a pass on the 2020 governor's race and faces no significant GOP opposition. He's a shoo-in for reelection in this solidly blue state.
Oregon: Ellen Rosenblum (D)
Rosenblum, who has been in office since 2012, faces only token GOP opposition. She's safer than safe in this blue state.