Handicapping the 2019 and 2020 Attorney General Elections
October 25, 2019 | Louis Jacobson
In the oft-overlooked but politically important fight to control the nation’s offices of attorney general, the Democrats gained enough ground in 2018 to take a narrow lead — but that lead could evaporate in 2019.
The three states holding attorney general elections this fall are all solidly Republican, and the GOP poised to flip at least one and possibly two seats currently held by Democrats.
Already this month, the GOP secured its hold on Louisiana’s office of attorney general when incumbent Republican Jeff Landry won more than 50 percent of the vote in the state’s all-party primary, eliminating the need for him to run in a November runoff.
Meanwhile, Mississippians are favored to flip the AG seat previously held by Democrat Jim Hood, who’s running for governor. The race in Kentucky has much the same dynamic, with a Democrat, Andy Beshear, giving up his seat as AG to run for governor. This race offers the GOP an opportunity to flip a seat, though the contest is much closer than the one in Mississippi.
Currently, Democrats occupy 26 attorney general offices, while the Republicans fill 24.
Republican victories in both Mississippi and Kentucky would reverse that number to 26 Republican and 24 Democratic. (Among elected AG posts only — not counting appointed offices — Democrats now control 23 to the Republicans’ 20, meaning that Democratic losses in Mississippi and Kentucky would also flip the balance of elected AG offices to the GOP.)
Meanwhile, the outlook for 2020 — when ten states will hold attorney general elections — has more of a status-quo cast for now. Republicans are expected to hold at least one safe seat (Utah) and one likely Republican seat (Missouri), while Democrats hold one likely Democratic seat (Pennsylvania) and three safe seats (Oregon, Vermont, and Washington).
The most competitive contests for 2020 include the open-seat race in Montana, which is currently held by a Republican, the reelection bids of GOP incumbents in Indiana and West Virginia, and the Democratic-held seat in North Carolina.
Below is a rundown of the 2019 races, followed by the 2020 races. In the handicapping below, the seats within each category are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.
1. Louisiana: Jeff Landry (R)
Landry, the Republican incumbent, won 66 percent of the vote in Louisiana’s all-party primary on Oct. 12, allowing him to avoid a runoff and secure a new term.
2. Mississippi: OPEN (Hood)(D)
Mississippi hasn’t elected a Republican attorney general since the aftermath of the Civil War, but that drought is likely to end this year, as Hood — a conservative who has remained a rare statewide elected Democratic official in the Deep South — gives up his post to run for governor. The favorite in the attorney general race is Republican state treasurer Lynn Fitch. She faces Democrat Jennifer Riley Collins, an Army veteran and civil rights advocate who is seeking to become the first African-American woman elected to statewide office in Mississippi. (Either nominee would become the first woman to become attorney general of Mississippi.) Collins faces a steep ideological hurdle in this solidly conservative state: She’s the former executive director of the state ACLU and recently welcomed the endorsement of EMILY’s List, which backs pro-abortion-rights Democrats.
3. Kentucky: OPEN (Beshear)(D)
Lame-duck Beshear is in a tight race to unseat GOP incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin, and the race to succeed Beshear also looks tight. The Democratic nominee is former state House speaker and former attorney general Greg Stumbo – an old-fashioned Kentucky Democrat who’s well-known to voters and who has been fighting against opioids for more than two decades. On the downside, his long record in state government provides grist for his opponent. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee, Daniel Cameron, has the opposite problem — he’s 33 and was able to remain on the ballot only after surviving a lawsuit that argued that he had spent too few years as working as a practicing attorney to meet a state requirement for the office. As the Lexington Herald-Leader was grudgingly endorsing Stumbo, the newspaper called the race “one of the nastiest ones on record, filled with innuendo, lawsuits and cease-and-desist orders, reflecting two candidates at either end of the spectrum of politics, age and experience.” Cameron, an African-American with conservative and anti-abortion bona fides, has served as a law clerk in federal court, as a lawyer at a private firm, and – crucially – as legal counsel to Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who serves not just as Senate Majority Leader but also as the state’s political godfather. The McConnell-Cameron connection has opened up a money spigot from the state’s political establishment, which strengthens the boost Cameron will get from running in a red state. While this race is competitive, it’s worth putting the finger on the scale for Cameron.
Utah: Sean Reyes (R)
Assuming he doesn’t join the large field of Republicans running for an open gubernatorial seat in 2020, Reyes should have an easy path to reelection. No Democrat has announced for the seat; indeed, the party’s bench in this strongly Republican seat is thin.
Missouri: Eric Schmitt (R)
Schmitt is the incumbent, but he’s 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. Missouri’s increasingly Republican tilt gives Schmitt a leg up; so do his fundraising numbers, which dwarf those of his only Democratic challengers. One is Richard Finneran, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri and who’s now in private practice. The other announced Democrat is Elad Gross, a young attorney and political newcomer. One possible Democrat in the wings is Teresa Hensley, who lost to Hawley in 2016. Until we know more about the campaign chops of the two Democrats, we’ll keep this one in Likely Republican.
Indiana: Curtis Hill (R)
In theory, Hill ought to have no problem getting reelected in a red state like Indiana — except that he faces groping allegations by four women. Hill strongly denies the allegations, but the governor and legislative leaders have called on him to resign. Now he’s facing a proceeding to determine whether he loses his law license, a development that would make it impossible to continue as attorney general. Hill also faces an intra-party challenge from Republican attorney John Westercamp, who has not run for office before. The nomination will be decided at a state convention, and Hill has an edge there given his strong support from the party’s socially conservative base. The Democrats have one candidate so far, longtime state Sen. Karen Tallian, an outspoken figure on the environment, labor, and marijuana legalization. Because the disposition of Hill’s case will heavily affect the 2020 contest, we’re putting this race only at Lean Republican for now, despite Indiana’s strong GOP tilt.
West Virginia: Patrick Morrisey (R)
In increasingly red West Virginia, Morrisey starts as the favorite for a third term, assuming he runs – but he wouldn’t be an unassailable favorite. Morrisey is fresh off a defeat in a high-profile 2018 U.S. Senate race against incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin – a contest in which he sustained some damage both in the primary and the general, including a fresh focus on his past career as a lobbyist and his support for a lawsuit that would end the Affordable Care Act. More recently, it was revealed that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — two of the figures connected to the Ukraine controversy that could lead to President Donald Trump’s impeachment — donated to a pro-Morrisey super PAC during his Senate bid. For now, the only Democrat in the race is 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. Petsonk is probably to the left of most West Virginia voters, but his advocacy for coal miners, a signature West Virginia constituency, could give him a starting point for a candidacy if Morrisey’s standing erodes.
Montana: OPEN (Fox)(R)
Even though Montana is a red state, this is looking like a competitive AG contest in 2020. Fox, a Republican, has held the post for two terms, but the Democrats have often held it in the past, including the tenure of the AG who preceded Fox — outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock. Both parties are expecting primaries, which may be understood as pitting an establishment choice against an outsider. On the Republican side, chief deputy attorney general Jon Bennion is slated to face off against former state House speaker Austin Knudsen. Bennion, an ally of Fox, is considered a pragmatist, while Knudsen is a conservative firebrand. Knudsen may have the edge in a primary dominated by base voters, but Bennion is considered a stronger general-election candidate. (During his two terms as speaker, an alliance of Democrats and moderate Republicans were sometimes able to block Knudsen’s priorities.) The Democrats, meanwhile, are expecting a face-off between Raph Graybill, the chief counsel to Bullock, and attorney and state Rep. Kim Dudik. The thirtysomething Graybill has a sterling resume – a Rhodes scholarship and a Yale Law degree – and he comes from a prominent Montana political family. Another Democratic candidate who could decide to enter the race is former state Auditor John Morrison, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2006. If the general election matchup features Knudsen against Graybill, this race probably moves to tossup. But for now, given the state’s Republican leanings, we’re starting it at lean Republican.
North Carolina: Josh Stein (D)
After a narrow 2016 victory in deeply divided North Carolina, Stein has earned positive reviews for such efforts as bipartisan legislation to ease rape kit processing backlogs. He is preparing to face Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2016 Republican primary for attorney general. This race hasn’t fully developed yet, and it will likely be shaped by the other big contests happening in North Carolina in 2020 — the presidential race and contested gubernatorial and senatorial contests.
Pennsylvania: Josh Shapiro (D)
Shapiro, currently in his first term, has become one of the nation’s most high-profile attorneys general, partly because of the grand jury report he shepherded on Catholic Church sex abuse in Pennsylvania, a report that sent shockwaves all the way to the Vatican. No challenger has emerged yet, either from the GOP or from his own party. However, Republicans expect a strong GOP candidate to emerge, perhaps as soon as the end of the year. If so, the seat could become more competitive, especially in a presidential year in which Pennsylvania will be a major battleground.
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. He recently filed his 50th suit against the administration, and that approach seems to be just fine with voters in the state. So far, there’s no sign of a Republican challenger, and the GOP suffers from a weak bench.
Vermont: T.J. Donovan (D)
Assuming Donovan doesn’t jump into the 2020 governor’s race, he’s a shoo-in for reelection in this solidly blue state.
Oregon: Ellen Rosenblum (D)
Rosenblum filed to run for a third term on the first day of filing in September, and the only high-profile potential challenger -- Democratic House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson — opted instead to run for secretary of state. There are no Republican contenders on the horizon yet.