September Update: Handicapping the 2020 Attorney General Elections

September 15, 2020 | Louis Jacobson

The year 2020 remains turbulent, with a caustic political environment. The looming presidential race has made it hard to focus public and media attention on downballot contests such as those for state attorney general. But a handful of the ten state attorney general races this year have developed enough that we've moved their ratings a notch since our last analysis in June. Two contests have shifted in the GOP's direction, while one has moved towards the Democrats.


After the 2018 election, the Democrats briefly surged into a narrow lead in AG office control, but that lead disappeared with three losses in conservative southern states that held off-year elections in 2019. Today, the GOP holds 26 AG offices to the Democrats' 24. Looking only at elected AG posts, the Republicans also have a narrow edge — 22 Republican offices to the Democrats' 21.

Of the ten elections this year, we rate four of these as solid: Utah for the Republicans and Washington, Vermont, and Oregon for the Democrats. Pennsylvania remains in the Likely Democratic category, while two GOP-held seats are now Likely Republican: Missouri shifted from Solid Republican, while West Virginia shifted from Lean Republican. 

This leaves three contests in our "competitive" categories: Lean Republican, Toss Up, or Lean Democratic.

We're keeping the Democratic-held seat in North Carolina as Lean Democratic, though it's arguably on the cusp of slipping into the Likely Democratic category. We are shifting the open-seat race in Montana from Toss Up to Lean Republican.

The final race on our list is the sole Toss Up at the moment, and it's a somewhat surprising one: Indiana. There, a scandal-tarred GOP incumbent lost his bid for renomination, and with most races in Indiana uncompetitive this year, Democrats are focusing intently on capturing the open AG position.

State AG Ratings

Below is a rundown of the ten races this fall. In the handicapping below, each category's seats are rank-ordered from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic.

Utah: Sean Reyes (R)
Solid Republican

After falling short of the 60% needed in the state party convention to avoid a primary, Reyes was able to defeat Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, the brother of former Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, in the June primary, winning 54% of the vote. Reyes got some national attention when he was given a speaking slot in the Republican National Convention. In the speech, he cited his Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, and Spanish ancestry and touted his efforts (and Trump's) to combat human trafficking. However, that same issue would later get Reyes into some trouble, when he had to postpone a march that was intended to raise awareness about human trafficking after it began to be confused with another event, scheduled in close proximity, that had links to QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that accuses Democrats and celebrities of being Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles. The controversy probably won't matter in the end; Utah's strong GOP lean means that Reyes will remain a heavy favorite over Democratic attorney and 2004 AG nominee Greg Skordas.

Missouri: Eric Schmitt (R)
Likely Republican (shift from Solid Republican)

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. Republicans have been dominant in Missouri's statewide races in the past few election cycles, and Schmitt has a large fundraising edge. But the presidential race has narrowed in the state, with Trump outpolling Biden by just mid-single-digit margins after he won by an 18-point margin in 2016. Meanwhile, the summer's racial unrest, including the gun-toting faceoff between a white St. Louis couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, and Black Lives Matter marchers, may energize voters in urban and suburban areas. Richard Finneran, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri who's now in private practice, won the Democrats' AG primary by a double-digit margin and is viewed as well-qualified by insiders. However, he has poor name recognition and begins well behind in fundraising. (Libertarian candidate Kevin Babcock is not expected to become a major factor.) Whatever Democratic tide develops in Missouri seems unlikely to be strong enough to push all of the party's downballot candidates to victory. Still, in an abundance of caution, we're shifting this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.

West Virginia: Patrick Morrisey (R)
Likely Republican (shift from Lean Republican)

In increasingly red West Virginia, Morrisey remains the favorite to win a third term. In the June 9 Democratic primary, 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, defeated Del. Issac Sponaugle by the narrowest of margins. Petsonk has been traveling around the state focusing on his work on black lung disease. But despite some weaknesses for Morrisey – his failed challenge in 2018 to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, his previous career as a lobbyist, and his support for a lawsuit that would end the Affordable Care Act – the Democrat faces an uphill path to winning. Morrisey has been tying himself to Trump, who is hugely popular in the state, while casting Petsonk as too left-wing on such issues as policing and the environment. Petsonk has little time left to distance himself from the national Democratic Party, which is toxic in the state. Given the state's overall GOP strength, we're moving this race from Lean Republican to Likely Republican.

Montana: OPEN (Fox) (R)
Lean Republican (shift from Toss Up)

This 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. Graybill has also been putting up some impressive fundraising numbers, although support from the national GOP may be able to boost Knudsen.

On balance, when both candidates are relatively unknown in Montana, the edge traditionally goes to the Republican, because there are more Republican voters in the state, and when voters don't know the candidates, they tend to default to those from their own party. In addition, Knudsen is focusing his campaign on law enforcement, including the fight against meth, which has become a significant problem in the state. Graybill, by contrast, has been focusing more on drug prices, public-lands access, and voter registration. Knudsen's message, to the extent it's getting out, may end up packing a more urgent punch with voters.

Montana is awash in competitive races this year, and while the Democrats could potentially win any of them, there's no sign yet of a massive anti-Republican wave that would carry the party to victory in each of those races. While this contest could drift back to Toss Up in the coming weeks, we're moving it to Lean Republican for now.

Indiana: OPEN (Hill) (R)
Toss Up

To our surprise, we've decided to keep this race at Toss Up, despite its being held in a solidly Republican state, and not even in one that will be shaped by the presidential race or a U.S. Senate contest.

The incumbent AG, Republican Curtis Hill, 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, other 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. 

Hill was forced to fight three rivals for renomination at the state party convention in July: 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. In the end, Rokita won, though that didn't end the agita for Indiana Republicans. Rokita has clashed with several of Indiana Republican figures in one way or another during the past decade, and ambitious Republicans would rather not see him win a post that could launch him into the frontrunner spot in 2024, when Holcomb will be term-limited out of the governorship.

Indiana Democrats, meanwhile, see the AG contest as their only viable statewide race this year, so they're focusing intently on it. Former two-term Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel, who more recently served as chancellor of the state community college's southwestern region, defeated the more liberal state Sen. Karen Tallian in the primary, and Weinzapfel is considered a credible candidate – indeed, one of the few the state Democratic Party has these days. He's managed to pick up some GOP support, including the endorsement of Republican superintendent of public instruction Jennifer McCormick. National Democrats have also promised to invest in the race. For now, this race remains a Toss Up.

North Carolina: Josh Stein (D)
Lean Democratic

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. This race hasn't attracted much attention, partly because North Carolina is a presidential battleground and has hot races for U.S. Senate, governor, and control of the legislature. The continuing attention vacuum probably benefits Stein, who's also outraised O'Neill and is on TV with bipartisan-themed ads. Stein is favored to win a second term, but given the contest's potential to be buffeted by trends in other races, we're not quite ready to move this out of the Lean Democratic category.

Pennsylvania: Josh Shapiro (D)
Likely Democratic

Shapiro, currently in his first term, is considered a rising star in the state, and Republicans would love to put a dent in his political future. But the GOP's efforts to boost Republican Heather Heidelbaugh appear ­­to be in vain so far, despite the fierce competition to win the state in the presidential race. 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.

Oregon: Ellen Rosenblum (D)
Solid Democratic

Even in this unstable era, Oregon has faced more than its share of instability, particularly the violent protests in Portland and the searing forest and brush fires. So far, though, the unrest doesn't seem to be affecting the AG race (or the presidential race). Rosenblum, who has been in office since 2012, faces only token GOP opposition from Michael Cross, a veteran and political novice. The political environment in the state bears watching, but for now, we're keeping the race Solid Democratic.

Washington: Bob Ferguson (D)
Solid Democratic

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's widely seen as a potential successor to Gov. Jay Inslee when the governor decides to step down. Initially, the GOP was hopeful it might have a shot, and saw Ferguson's liberal record in office as a vulnerability. Three Republicans ran in the primary, with Matt Larkin, a former White House aide under President George W. Bush, edging Brett Rogers, a former police officer and correctional officer, and GOP activist Mike Vaska. But Ferguson cruised in the all-party primary, winning almost 56% of the vote. Ferguson remains in the driver's seat.

Vermont: T.J. Donovan (D)
Solid Democratic

Donovan faces no significant GOP opposition. He remains a shoo-in for reelection in this solidly blue state.