|Dear Readers: In the latest edition of our Politics is Everything podcast, the Crystal Ball’s J. Miles Coleman, Kyle Kondik, and Carah Ong Whaley discuss the results from Tuesday night’s Virginia state legislative primaries and look ahead to the closely-contested battle for control of both chambers coming up this fall. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you get your podcasts.
In today’s Crystal Ball, Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson previews another set of key state-level races for this year and next: attorneys general and secretaries of state.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The once low-profile contests for attorney general and secretary of state have become increasingly important for driving policy outcomes in the states, particularly in setting the rules for how elections are run.
— The current campaign cycle doesn’t promise quite as much drama as there was in 2022, when several key presidential battleground states played host to tight contests between Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump and more mainstream Democrats.
— For the current 2023-2024 cycle, we are starting our handicapping by assigning 18 of the 23 races to either the Safe Republican or the Safe Democratic category. Still, a number of these states will undergo wide-open primaries with different ideological flavors of candidates. And in the general election, we see three races as highly competitive: the attorney general and secretary of state races in North Carolina and the AG race in Pennsylvania.
Looming AG and secretary of state contests
The midterm election of 2022 was an unusually pivotal one for attorney general and secretary of state contests. There was a surplus of races between election-denying Republicans and more mainstream Democrats in such pivotal presidential battleground states as Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada. In our final pre-election handicapping of the 2022 cycle, we rated 12 of the 30 attorney general races and 16 of the 27 secretary of state races as competitive, meaning they were categorized either as Toss-ups or as leaning toward the Democrats or the Republicans.
The current campaign cycle isn’t promising quite as much drama: All told, 18 out of the 23 races on tap start out as either Safe Republican or Safe Democratic in our rankings.
Still, these contests will be important, because attorneys general can file lawsuits with far-reaching policy impact and because secretaries of state oversee the election process (in most states, anyway).
In the 2023-2024 election cycle, at least 6 of the 13 AG races and at least 4 of the 10 secretary of state races will be open seats, often because the incumbent is running for governor — a sign of how these lower-profile offices can serve as important political stepping stones.
Especially in states with heavily Republican leanings, these open-seat races are poised to involve a number of highly competitive primaries. In many cases, these primaries will pit more pragmatic Republicans against more aggressively populist ones. The type of nominee that emerges victorious could have a tangible impact on policy in these states, because those states’ partisanship makes it hard for Democrats to win a general election.
Meanwhile, the key matchups for the 2024 general election promise to be the AG and secretary of state races in North Carolina and the AG contest in Pennsylvania. (Pennsylvania’s secretary of state is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate rather than elected.) Both states will simultaneously be serving as presidential battlegrounds.
In the meantime, the races for both AG and secretary of state in Kentucky — which will be held later this year — bear watching, with Democrats nominating credible candidates. But because this is heavily red Kentucky, the GOP remains favored to hold both.
Here’s a rundown of each race for AG and secretary of state in the current two-year cycle, based on multiple interviews with political observers, both in the states and nationally. As in the past, we have rated contests in descending order, from most likely to be won by the Republicans to most likely to be won by the Democrats, including within each rating category (Safe Republican, Likely Republican, Leans Republican, Toss-up, Leans Democratic, Likely Democratic, and Safe Democratic). We’ll update these ratings periodically as the contests develop.
First, we’ll start with the three states that vote in 2023. Then we’ll move to the larger number of states that will be voting in 2024.
2023 ATTORNEY GENERAL RACES
Louisiana: Open (Jeff Landry, R, is running for governor)
Louisiana’s office of attorney general is opening up this year as Landry runs for governor. That high-stakes race for governor, in which Landry is a leading contender, has significantly overshadowed the battle to fill the office he’s giving up.
Louisiana has an all-party primary on Oct. 14. If no one gets a majority, there will be a runoff on Nov. 18. In many such races in the past, a Democratic candidate has secured one of the two runoff slots. But in the AG contest, no Democrat has emerged yet, and the party’s bench in this solidly red state is thin. So the runoff, if there is one, might come down to what flavor of Republican voters want.
Landry’s top deputy, Solicitor General Liz Murrill, is the most conservative candidate in the race as well as the best funded. In addition to being closely aligned with the polarizing Landry, Murrill was previously a top legal advisor to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who was unpopular when he left office. Murrill was also widely seen as bungling an abortion case before the U.S. Supreme Court, leading to a loss when Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberals in the case (this was prior to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in 2020).
Murrill’s leading opponent is GOP state Rep. John Stefanski, who is considered more moderate and is well-liked by state insiders for his even-handed stewardship of the House committee that oversees redistricting. Another Republican running is former prosecutor Marty Maley of Baton Rouge, who finished fifth in the 2015 primary.
Murrill could run strong in an off-year election without a well-known and popular Democrat at the top of the ticket. If no Democrat enters the race and Stefanski makes the runoff, he would have a chance of winning, if he can nail down support from Democrats and establishment Republicans. But it’s unclear how much Stefanski would actively court Democratic votes in that scenario, at the risk of alienating Republicans. And there’s still time for a Democrat to get in the race, which would call into question that strategy.
Mississippi (Republican Lynn Fitch)
Fitch is seeking her second term as attorney general. The Mississippi attorney general’s office was the last statewide office that Democrats controlled in the state; Jim Hood gave it up to make an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2019, and Fitch flipped the open seat in the general election that year. But while Democrats are pleased with their challenger — Greta Kemp Martin, the litigation director of Disability Rights Mississippi — and while they see an opening with corruption allegations against former GOP Gov. Phil Bryant and former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, the Democrats’ chances of winning the AG’s office back this year against an incumbent Republican seem small.
Kentucky: Open (Daniel Cameron, R, is running for governor)
Like Republican gubernatorial candidate Cameron, GOP attorney general nominee Russell Coleman has one foot in the camp of Senate Minority Leader (and Kentucky Republican godfather) Mitch McConnell as well as one foot in the camp of former President Donald Trump. Coleman served as legal counsel to McConnell while also receiving Trump’s appointment to serve as U.S. attorney for Kentucky’s western district.
Coleman’s background in rural Kentucky and his tough-on-crime approach should serve him well in the general election. In a poll by the Republican firm Cygnal, Coleman led his Democratic opponent by double digits even though the same poll showed Cameron in a dead heat with incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
However, many voters in the poll were undecided on the AG race, and Democrat Pamela Stevenson brings a unique personal background to the contest. In addition to serving in the state House, Stevenson spent 27 years in the Air Force, including extensive legal experience as a judge advocate general. Her campaign logo features her rank of colonel in a larger font size than her last name.
Stevenson, a Black Democrat, is running to succeed Cameron, a Black Republican. But geography could be a problem (she’s based in Louisville, a region that has often produced losing statewide Democratic candidates) and passionate speeches from the floor of the state House may provide Republicans with campaign fodder. If Stevenson catches fire, this race’s rating could shift, but for now, given the state’s red tint, we’re starting it at Likely Republican.
2023 SECRETARY OF STATE RACES
Mississippi (Republican Michael Watson)
Watson, elected in 2019, is seeking a second term and should easily win it. He faces Democrat Shuwaski Young, a political organizer and former federal Department of Homeland Security staffer. He ran for Congress against Rep. Michael Guest in 2022, winning only 29% of the vote in the solidly Republican district.
Louisiana: Open seat (Kyle Ardoin is retiring)
Incumbent Republican Kyle Ardoin bowed out of seeking reelection to a second full term, citing the “pervasive lies” of election deniers.
The GOP has a sizable field seeking to succeed him. One contender is Clay Schexnayder, a mechanic and race-car driver who is term-limited in the legislature after becoming the surprise compromise choice for House Speaker in 2020. He is well-known, is considered an effective legislator, and is sitting on a sizable war chest. But some conservative activists view him with suspicion, given his pragmatic approach to working with Democrats.
Other GOP candidates include grocery store owner Brandon Trosclair, an election denier; deep-pocketed Public Service Commissioner Mike Francis; and former state Rep. Nancy Landry, who has worked in Ardoin’s office for four years (and is not related to Jeff Landry).
The lone Democrat currently in the race is attorney, accountant, and small business owner Gwen Collins-Greenup. She has already run twice for secretary of state, losing to Ardoin both times with 41% of the vote. With that kind of track record, she has a good shot at getting past the primary but losing the runoff.
Kentucky (Republican Michael Adams)
Adams is a Republican who is tolerable to many Democrats. He fruitfully negotiated bipartisan electoral reforms with Beshear, a Democrat, receiving praise from across the ideological spectrum. Despite opposition from his right, Adams won a May primary with a little shy of two-thirds of the vote.
Democratic nominee Buddy Wheatley is from the region of northern Kentucky, which is in the Cincinnati orbit — this part of the state is reliably Republican at the presidential level but portions of it ended up contributing to Beshear’s winning gubernatorial coalition in 2019. Wheatley was a state representative but lost reelection after his district was redrawn to be unfavorable. Wheatley is considered a strong candidate, and he’s been attacking Adams fairly aggressively, but defeating a politician as well-liked as Adams will not be easy.
2024 ATTORNEY GENERAL RACES
Utah (Republican Sean Reyes)
Reyes can seek a third full term as attorney general in 2024. No one has emerged as either a primary or general election challenger. Until someone does, Reyes should have smooth sailing. Reyes was mentioned many months ago as a potential primary challenger to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), but we have not heard anything about that recently.
Montana (Republican Austin Knudsen)
There’s no indication that Knudsen, who’s in his first term, won’t seek reelection. While Knudsen has irritated some Republicans in the state, he would be a heavy favorite in heavily Republican Montana unless he gets a primary challenge or seeks higher office. No names of potential Democratic challengers have surfaced.
West Virginia: Open seat (Patrick Morrisey, R, is running for governor)
West Virginia’s ascendant GOP has at least two credible candidates for this open-seat contest: state Sen. Ryan Weld, a member of the chamber’s leadership, and fellow state Sen. Mike Stuart, a former state Republican chairman and a former U.S. attorney appointed by then-President Donald Trump. Of the two, Weld is considered more of a pragmatist, while Stuart has positioned himself as more of a populist.
No Democrat has announced a run. Either way, the real action is expected to come in the GOP primary.
Missouri (Republican Andrew Bailey)
When Eric Schmitt left the AG office to become a U.S. senator, GOP Gov. Mike Parson appointed Bailey, his general counsel, to fill the vacancy. Now Bailey is running for a term of his own.
Bailey is continuing Schmitt’s conservative politics and is running with the aid of incumbency. But he won’t have a free ride in the GOP primary. One candidate already in the race is Will Scharf, a former federal prosecutor and onetime aide to then-Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican who resigned the office amid a personal scandal. Other potential Republican candidates include Tim Garrison, a former U.S. attorney and Marine Corps veteran; state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a cousin once removed from GOP Congressman Blaine Luetkemeyer; and John Wood, a former federal prosecutor and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate in 2022. Wood dropped out of that race, in which he was running as an independent, after Greitens lost to Schmitt in the 2022 Senate primary.
On the Democratic side is state Rep. Sarah Unsicker and, with an exploratory committee established, Elad Gross, who lost the 2020 Democratic primary for AG. However, Missouri has become so solidly red that Democrats face huge hurdles in winning statewide office.
Indiana (Republican Todd Rokita)
Rokita has been highly visible, and controversial, including for pursuing sanctions against a physician who spoke to the media about the case of a 10-year-old rape victim that attracted national attention.
Still, Rokita should be well-funded and benefit from grassroots support. If Democrats can recruit a credible candidate, they could make this a race, but no names have emerged yet, and there are few Democrats who would make credible statewide candidates in Indiana any more.
North Carolina: Open seat (Josh Stein, D, is running for governor)
Historically, North Carolina has been a competitive state in down-ballot races. Will that enable Democrats to keep their longstanding hold on the AG office as Stein runs for governor? It’s hard to say.
The leading Republican in the race is former state Rep. Tom Murry, though there is talk that GOP Congressman Dan Bishop, who is better known, might get into the contest. On the Democratic side is attorney and veteran Tim Dunn, though if new, GOP-leaning congressional lines are drawn, Democratic Rep. Jeff Jackson could enter the race rather than compete in an unfriendly district.
With the final candidate lineup in limbo, and given the state’s competitive nature down the ballot, we will start this contest as a Toss-up.
Pennsylvania: Open seat (Appointed AG Michelle Henry, D, is not running)
The Democrats have a trio of credible, declared candidates: former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, former Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan, and former top Philadelphia public defender Keir Bradford-Grey. Potentially in the wings are several other credible Democratic candidates: former Congressman and Senate candidate Conor Lamb, state Rep. Jared Solomon, and Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.
No Republican is officially in the race yet, but several plausible candidates are considering bids, including former U.S. attorney and gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain, state Reps. Natalie Mihalek and Craig Williams, former U.S. Attorney Scott Brady, York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, and Westmoreland County District Attorney Nicole Ziccarelli.
Democrats feel good about their chances of holding this seat, which was occupied by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro until he moved up in 2022. Democrats did well in the Keystone State in the 2022 midterms, and the presidential contest in 2024 should ensure high turnout. But Pennsylvania is a swingy state, with Republicans winning the state auditor general and treasurer races in 2020, and the GOP plans to take this race seriously, so we’ll start it in the Toss-up category. That could change depending on who the nominees are.
Washington state: Open seat (Bob Ferguson, D, is running for governor)
Ferguson leaves big shoes to fill as he runs for governor, but Washington state Democrats have a deep bench. Already in the race is state Sen. Manka Dhingra. Other Democrats who could join her include outgoing U.S. Attorney Nicholas Brown (who just resigned in advance of a run), state Sen. Drew Hansen, and Solicitor General Noah Purcell.
The GOP has a weak bench and, at least for now, shows no signs of competing aggressively for AG’s office.
Oregon (Democrat Ellen Rosenblum)
Rosenblum, who has held the office since 2012, would be a lock for reelection if she runs again, but she could retire. Any jockeying for the seat has taken a back seat to the legislative session in which Republican state senators have been denying the Democratic majority a quorum for months. (The walkout began May 3 and ended June 15.) But Democrats should have little to worry about, regardless of who their nominee is.
Vermont (Democrat Charity Clark)
Clark was elected AG in 2022 and should have no trouble winning a second two-year term in solidly blue Vermont.
Keep an eye on Texas, where GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton is facing possible removal from office after being impeached by the GOP-controlled state House.
If Paxton is ousted, which would require a 2/3rds majority vote of the state Senate, there would be a special election concurrent with the 2024 presidential election, with a March 2024 primary at the same time as that for other offices. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) would appoint an AG to serve between Paxton’s removal and the election of the new AG in 2024 (Abbott has already appointed an interim AG, John Scott, to take Paxton’s place temporarily while Paxton faces his impeachment trial). The winner would serve out the remainder of Paxton’s current term, which runs through January 2027.
2024 SECRETARY OF STATE RACES
West Virginia: Open seat (Mac Warner, R, is running for governor)
So far, the top GOP contenders for this open seat race include state Del. Chris Pritt, former state Del. Ken Reed, former state Sen. Kenny Mann, and longtime Putnam County Clerk Brian Wood. None of the candidates is considered widely known across the state, but whoever wins the nomination would be heavily favored against the eventual Democratic nominee.
Missouri: Open seat (Jay Ashcroft, R, is running for governor)
On the Republican side, Greene County Clerk and former state Rep. Shane Schoeller, who also was the 2012 GOP nominee for this office, has filed to run, but observers expect the GOP field for this open seat to grow. Whoever wins the nomination would be the heavy favorite against whichever Democrat wins the nomination.
Montana (Republican Christi Jacobsen)
Jacobsen is expected to run for reelection and would be heavily favored. No Democratic names have surfaced, and the bench for Montana Democrats is thin. But Democrats hold out hope of finding a candidate who can surf the expected turnout boost from Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) reelection bid.
North Carolina (Democrat Elaine Marshall)
Despite North Carolina’s slight Republican lean, Marshall has become something of an institution in the state, having first been elected as secretary of state in 1996. But she won her most recent race by only about 2 percentage points in 2020, so the election should be competitive.
The GOP field includes Darren Eustance, a political consultant and the former chair of the Wake County Republican Party, and Gaston County Commissioner Chad Brown. Neither is well known, especially compared to Marshall. Incumbency gives Marshall a slight edge, but the contest should be competitive.
Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan resigned in May after a scandal regarding consulting work for a cannabis company. Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek has yet to appoint someone to fill the vacancy, though by law it must be a Democrat. Kotek’s appointed incumbent would be eligible to run in 2024, but it’s unclear whether the governor favors naming a caretaker or giving someone a head start on running for a full term.
Whichever option Kotek pursues, Democrats will be strongly favored to keep the office.
Washington (Democrat Steve Hobbs)
Hobbs, who was appointed to the office in 2021 and won the remainder of an unexpired term in 2022, should have no trouble winning again in 2024.
Vermont (Democrat Sarah Copeland Hanzas)
Copeland Hanzas, who won her first term as secretary of state in 2022, will be heavily favored to win again in 2024.
|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.|
Author: Louis Jacobson