|Dear Readers: Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson is analyzing several categories of state-level races for us this cycle. Today, he is doing his second assessment of this year’s attorney general races. He has also analyzed secretary of state, state legislative, and state supreme court races.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— This year, 30 states will hold elections for attorney general. Historically, these positions have been influential, albeit in a low-profile way, because of their responsibility for spearheading criminal and civil cases in their states.
— Our analysis suggests that 18 AG races should be clear holds for the incumbent party: 9 GOP seats that are expected to remain Republican, and 9 Democratic seats that should stay in Democratic hands.
— By our assessment, the remaining 12 seats will be competitive to at least some degree, with 7 of those seats currently held by Democrats and 5 held by the GOP. The competitive races, ranked in descending order from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic, are: Idaho, Texas, Georgia, Kansas, Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, and Colorado.
— Currently, the GOP holds 28 attorney general’s offices to 22 for the Democrats, although Vermont’s is held by a caretaker AG following a Democratic resignation; it is expected to flip back to Democratic control after the election.
2022’s AG races
While races for Senate, House, governor, and even secretary of state have dominated political media coverage in recent months, it’s worth remembering that 30 races for state attorney general are also on the ballot this year.
Historically, these positions have been influential, albeit in a low-profile way, because of their responsibility for spearheading criminal and civil cases in their states. And if anything, their importance may have grown during the course of this campaign, given the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the abortion ruling Roe vs. Wade, as well as continuing battles over election administration and voting rights.
Put simply, political professionals know that every down-ballot race can prove critical in a highly polarized political environment. And that extends to AG races.
Currently, the GOP holds 28 attorney general offices to 22 for the Democrats. However, that’s a bit deceiving: Following a Democratic AG’s surprise resignation earlier this year in Vermont, the state’s interim AG is a caretaker who is not running for a full term. While Vermont is a solidly blue state — and while Democrats are heavily favored to win the state’s AG office in November — Vermont’s governor is a moderate Republican who appointed a fellow Republican to be interim AG. Without this quirk, the national party breakdown for AG offices would be 27 for the Republicans and 23 for the Democrats, and that’s probably a fairer representation of the national status quo.
I have handicapped state AG races for the past decade for Governing, the Cook Political Report, and now for the Crystal Ball. My previous assessment for the Crystal Ball, the first of the 2022 cycle, was published in January. Back then, I placed 6 contests in the most competitive tier, 4 of which were seats held by Democrats and 2 of which were held by Republicans.
Today, the playing field is a bit larger, and a bit more evenly divided between the parties. In all, this analysis considers 12 AG races to be competitive to at least some degree, with 7 of those seats currently held by Democrats and 5 held by the GOP.
This broadening of the field reflects the somewhat improved political environment for national Democrats, as well as GOP primary voters’ record of choosing nominees who are aligned with former President Donald Trump and may not be able to win many crossover votes from Democrats and independents in November. Still, Republican gains cannot be ruled out, since the historical pattern for midterm elections is that parties in control of the White House tend to fare poorly.
The 12 competitive races, ranked in descending order from most likely to go Republican to most likely to go Democratic, are: Idaho, Texas, Georgia, Kansas, Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, and Colorado.
Of these, Idaho, Texas and Georgia lean Republican, while Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, and Colorado lean Democratic, to one degree or another. The other 5 states — Kansas, Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nevada — more or less look like coin flips for now. Three of these 5 most hotly contested states for AG races were among the closest states in the 2020 election. Additionally, all of these states except for Iowa also feature gubernatorial races that the Crystal Ball currently rates as Toss-ups.
The remaining 18 AG races should be clear holds for the incumbent party: 9 GOP seats that are expected to remain Republican, and 9 Democratic seats that should stay in Democratic hands (this group includes Vermont).
Here’s our breakdown of the 2022 AG races, with thumbnail descriptions of each contest as it stands today.
Republican seat, not competitive
Barring something unexpected, these 9 seats should safely stay in Republican hands. They are listed here in alphabetical order by state name.
Alabama: Steve Marshall (R)
Marshall is the overwhelming favorite in this strongly red state. He faces Democratic nominee Wendell Major, an attorney, veteran, and retired police officer.
Arkansas: Open seat (Leslie Rutledge, R, is term-limited)
Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a former U.S. House member and U.S. Attorney who has received Trump’s endorsement, should have no trouble in his bid to succeed Rutledge. The Democratic nominee — Jesse Gibson, a prominent trial lawyer and Little Rock Parks Commission chair — is a credible candidate but effectively has no shot in a state as strongly Republican as Arkansas.
Florida: Ashley Moody (R)
Florida Democrats are running uphill races against Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio, leaving little oxygen in their quest to knock out Moody. The incumbent has solid name recognition, lots of money, and the backing of DeSantis.
The Democratic nominee is Aramis Ayala, who became the first Black state attorney in Florida in 2017. Ayala won election to her central Florida position as a progressive reformer; in office, she said she would not seek the death penalty in murder cases, saying such sentences have been applied unevenly and are not an effective deterrent. Then-Gov. Rick Scott responded by taking away Ayala’s authority over first-degree murder cases, transferring them to a neighboring state attorney.
Even if Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist and Democratic Senate nominee Val Demings manage to pose serious threats to the GOP incumbents down the stretch, Ayala is probably too far to the left and too hampered by weak fundraising to keep this race especially close.
Nebraska: Open seat (Doug Peterson, R, is retiring)
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers easily won the GOP primary and should cruise to victory in November. He has no Democratic opponent, only one from the Legal Marijuana Now party.
North Dakota: Drew Wrigley (R)
Long-serving Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) announced he was not running for another term, and former GOP Lt. Governor and former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley announced his candidacy. Stenehjem later died in office, and Gov. Doug Burgum (R-ND) appointed Wrigley to replace him. Wrigley will be the clear favorite over Democratic nominee Tim Lamb, an attorney and retired Army officer. (This entry was corrected from an earlier version.)
Ohio: Dave Yost (R)
Yost, who was elected state auditor in 2010 and served 2 terms before winning the race for attorney general, is the favorite over state Rep. Jeff Crossman, the Democratic nominee. Yost has taken some heat for comments on Fox News casting doubt about the claim that a 10-year-old had to go to Indiana to get an abortion, which later proved to be true. Still, that doesn’t seem to be enough to overcome the state’s GOP leanings, as well as Yost’s superior name identification and war chest.
Oklahoma: Open seat (John O’Connor, R, was defeated for renomination)
O’Connor was appointed AG in June 2021 to succeed Mike Hunter, who resigned. But in the GOP primary, O’Connor narrowly fell to Gentner Drummond, a former fighter pilot who had lost the 2018 GOP primary runoff for AG to Hunter by only 271 votes. O’Connor and the governor who appointed him, Republican Kevin Stitt, are opposed by Native American tribes who disagree with their stances on tribal-related issues. However, there is no major-party vehicle to register their dissent in this race; there is no Democratic nominee in the general election, only a Libertarian candidate, Lynda Steele.
South Carolina: Alan Wilson (R)
There’s no Democratic challenger to Wilson for the general, so he will be easily reelected.
South Dakota: Open seat (Jason Ravnsborg, R, was impeached and removed from office)
The saga of Ravnsborg is finally over. In 2020, Ravnsborg was involved in a vehicular accident in which a pedestrian was killed; he pleaded no contest to 2 misdemeanors but remained in office until he was impeached and removed from the office earlier this year. After Ravnsborg’s removal, Mark Vargo was appointed as the placeholder attorney general, but he is not running for a full term.
Instead, Republican Marty Jackley, who previously served as AG and as a U.S. Attorney, is running for his old office and faces no major-party opposition in the general election. In fact, Jackley’s path to victory is so secure that he’s already begun working with the AG’s office to search for the next director of the Division of Criminal Investigation.
These 12 races qualify as at least somewhat competitive. Seven are currently held by Democrats, while 5 are held by Republicans. The races are listed in descending order, from states most likely to go Republican in November to states most likely to go Democratic.
Idaho: Open seat (Lawrence Wasden, R, was defeated for renomination)
Wasden, a long-serving incumbent and establishment favorite, lost to former U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador in a 3-way GOP primary after he’d experienced frequent tensions with the GOP-held legislature over conservative legislation he considered legally questionable.
Democrats have a surprisingly credible candidate: Boise attorney Tom Arkoosh, a former Gem County prosecutor who has traditionally listed his affiliation as independent, giving him some protection from partisan attacks. After the primary, some of Wasden’s establishment Republican backers have shifted to Arkoosh’s camp. The Democratic nominee named 2 Republicans — former Secretary of State Ben Ysursa and former state Treasurer Lydia Justice Edwards — as campaign co-chairs, along with a Republican-turned-independent, former state Sen. Judi Danielson.
Labrador remains the favorite due to the state’s strong Republican leanings, but Arkoosh could make the race interesting.
Texas: Ken Paxton (R)
Despite his indictment for alleged securities fraud and an FBI investigation over abuse of office, Paxton secured the GOP nomination for another term, defeating primary rivals George P. Bush (the state land commissioner and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush), former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, and Rep. Louie Gohmert. Still, Paxton is widely considered the most vulnerable of the Texas Republican incumbents on the ballot this year in a state that has shown some signs of a blue shift.
The Democrats are running a credible candidate for AG in Rochelle Garza, who won a contested primary. As an attorney who has litigated on abortion, Garza can speak to voter concerns about abortion restrictions, which were already a notable issue in Texas even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade earlier this year. She’s also a Latina, which could help with Hispanics, who account for a significant portion of the electorate in Texas.
The University of Houston poll released Sept. 7 found Paxton leading, but only narrowly: 45% to 42%, with 10% undecided.
Garza’s challenge will be to reach more voters who are unfamiliar with her. This will not be easy, given her relatively weak fundraising haul in a state with several expensive media markets. If Garza doesn’t break through the clutter, Paxton could prevail again on the state’s Republican tailwinds, which have carried the GOP to victory in every statewide race for decades.
Georgia: Chris Carr (R)
Georgia is one of the marquee states in the 2022 election, with races for U.S. Senate, governor, and secretary of state all attracting national attention. The AG race, by contrast, has largely flown under the radar. Carr has avoided the worst of the intra-party strife between establishment Republicans and Trump-aligned Republicans in Georgia, which were fueled by the party’s narrow losses in the presidential and senatorial races in 2020. Compared to other races at the top of the ticket, namely those for Governor and Secretary of State, the AG contest received less attention during the primary phase of the campaign.
The Democrats are running a credible candidate, state Sen. Jen Jordan. (There’s also a Libertarian on the ballot, which potentially puts a post-election runoff into play.) Both major-party nominees are well funded for down-ballot candidates. A SurveyUSA poll found Carr leading Jordan, 38% to 34%, with 24% undecided.
Kansas: Open (Derek Schmidt, R, is running for governor)
Ordinarily, this seat would at least lean towards the GOP, but this is not an ordinary year in Kansas politics. The surprise surge of support for abortion rights in an August ballot measure showed that many Kansas voters are uneasy with the most conservative elements of the GOP. In addition, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is running in a tight race for another term, giving the Democratic ticket some ballast at the top of the ballot.
But the biggest factor shaping Kansas’ AG race is the person who won the GOP nomination: Kris Kobach. The onetime secretary of state has spent his career aggressively focusing on alleged election fraud and illegal immigration, to the irritation of many Kansas voters in the center and the moderate right. When Kobach won the nomination for governor in 2018, enough Republicans considered him too toxic that Kelly managed to defeat him, despite the state’s historically red leanings. Two years later, Kobach lost the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat. But facing a splintered GOP field, Kobach won the AG nomination earlier this year.
The Democratic nominee is Chris Mann, a former police officer who is now a prosecutor in Wyandotte County (Kansas City). Mann isn’t well known, but on paper, his background gives him solid “law and order” credentials.
The only poll released so far, which was conducted during the primary and was affiliated with Kobach’s campaign, found the Republican ahead — but only by a 44%-41% edge, which was inside the margin of error. Another 15% were undecided. Expect a close and hard-fought contest this fall.
Arizona: Open seat (Mark Brnovich, R, is term-limited)
Abe Hamadeh, a former prosecutor in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Republican nominee for attorney general, won a 6-way primary with less than 34% of the vote. He belongs to an entire GOP top-of-the-ticket in Arizona that was endorsed by Trump and that has largely echoed his allegations of election fraud, among other controversial stances.
The Democratic nominee, Kris Mayes, has bipartisan credentials; she served on the Arizona Corporation Commission from 2003 to 2011 as a Republican, but has also worked for former Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
Observers expect that Arizona’s Trump-aligned GOP ticket will either succeed or fail in unison, given the similarities in their views and rhetoric. Polling may eventually show differently, but for now, we’re considering this a competitive contest.
Iowa: Tom Miller (D)
Tom Miller is the nation’s longest-tenured state AG, first winning election in 1978 and serving all but 4 years since. Miller, who’s 77, has survived difficult political environments in the past, but Iowa’s recent swing to the right could pose a challenge.
Miller faces a rematch with Brenna Bird, a former aide to former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) who lost a challenge to Miller in 2010. Bird has goaded Miller with aggressive rhetoric, potentially forcing the longtime incumbent to up his campaign game. Bird may be aided by the fact that the state’s top 2 Republicans, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, are also on the ballot this year. This race offers as pure an example of the power of incumbency vs. the power of partisan leanings as any on this list.
Wisconsin: Josh Kaul (D)
When Kaul won the office in 2018, his vote margin was narrow and tracked the showing of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers. Evers is facing a tough reelection in 2022, and so is Kaul.
In the general election, Kaul faces Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney. Kaul has a money advantage, but ultimately, his fate will probably mirror whatever happens to Evers in November, and possibly the result of the U.S. Senate race between GOP incumbent Ron Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.
This is one of the states in which a Democratic voting surge from opposition to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision could have its biggest impact because — given Wisconsin’s solidly Republican legislature — a Democratic governor and attorney general may be the only things standing in the way of an abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest.
Nevada: Aaron Ford (D)
Ford is polished, well-funded, and has largely avoided any major hiccups in office. But he won only narrowly in the Democratic wave year of 2018, and for 2022, Nevada is one of the states where Democrats are concerned about possible GOP gains.
On the Republican side, attorney Sigal Chattah has attracted notice for suing the state over COVID restrictions; she won one case but lost the others. Chattah is considered more conservative than establishment Republicans would have liked; a group of Republicans has endorsed Ford over Chattah, including former state Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson and former GOP state chair Amy Tarkanian. Observers expect the race to be close.
Minnesota: Keith Ellison (D)
Among Minnesota’s Democratic incumbents on the statewide ballot this year, Ellison probably has the most to worry about in the general election.
He’s had an eventful tenure in office, including spearheading the successful prosecution of Derek Chauvin, the police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis. Ellison’s progressive views, combined with rising concerns about crime, are the main complications to his quest for a second term.
The GOP nominee is Jim Schultz, an attorney who won a majority of the vote in a 3-way primary contest. Schultz is considered more mainstream than some of the GOP’s other statewide candidates — in the primary, he defeated Doug Wardlow, a candidate backed by pillow magnate and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. In addition, Schultz’s lack of a political record could make him a trickier target for attacks by Ellison.
In a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll released Sept. 7, Ellison led Schultz, 46%-40%.
Ellison probably remains a slight favorite, but he’ll have to work for another term.
Michigan: Dana Nessel (D)
Nessel has been in the crosshairs for national Republicans, in large part due to Michigan’s central role in the 2020 presidential election. In being a target, Nessel is joined by the other 2 top Democratic women who are running for reelection in the state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson — when that trio was last on the ballot in the Democratic wave year of 2018, Nessel had the closest result, winning 49%-46%. And of the trio, Nessel’s habit of outspokenness may irritate Republicans the most.
However, all 3 Democrats have benefited from the GOP nominating process, which produced Trump-aligned candidates in each race. The Democrats could also benefit from the growing salience of abortion as an issue, as Michigan voters are set to vote on a statewide ballot issue that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.
The GOP nominee is Matthew DePerno, an attorney endorsed by Trump who has articulated election conspiracies. Nessel and DePerno have been engaged in a bitter war of words, exacerbated when Nessel, as the sitting attorney general, requested a special prosecutor to oversee a conspiracy probe into whether DePerno and other Michigan residents secured illegal access to election tabulators as part of a voter fraud investigation.
A Detroit News/WDIV poll taken in late August and early September found Nessel leading DePerno, 40%-34%, with about 20% of voters undecided. Nessel is also significantly outraising DePerno. For now, we’re considering this contest competitive.
New Mexico: Open (Hector Balderas, D, is term limited)
Bernalillo County (Albuquerque) District Attorney Raúl Torrez defeated state auditor and former state Democratic chair Brian Colón in the Democratic primary. He’ll face Republican nominee Jeremy Gay, an attorney and Marine veteran, in November.
Torrez has much higher name recognition in the state, having served as chief prosecutor of its largest county for the past 5 years. By contrast, Gay has never run for or held elected office before. A June poll by Public Policy Polling found 44% support for Torrez, 37% for Gay, and 19% undecided.
New Mexico’s Democratic leanings and the fact that only 3 Republicans have been elected AG since statehood in 1912 make Torrez the favorite going into the general election. But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) is facing a tough reelection fight from former broadcaster and 2020 Senate nominee Mark Ronchetti (R), and that could aid Gay, at least on the margins.
Colorado: Phil Weiser (D)
Weiser faces Arapahoe County District Attorney John Kellner in November. The well-funded Weiser benefits from the state’s Democratic lean and hasn’t made any major mistakes in office. But a Republican-sponsored poll found the AG’s race in a dead heat. We aren’t convinced it’s that close, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the contest.
Democratic seat, not competitive
Unless something unusual happens, these 9 seats should safely stay in Democratic hands. They are listed here in alphabetical order by state name.
California: Rob Bonta (D)
Bonta, who was appointed AG to succeed Xavier Becerra when Becerra was named Secretary of Health and Human Services, is seeking a term of his own in 2022.
At one point, it looked like Bonta could get ensnared in the rising criticism of progressive prosecutors, including the now-recalled Chesa Boudin of San Francisco. And his Republican opponent in November, Nathan Hochman, is relatively non-ideological, with deep ties in Southern California and solid fundraising skills. (Independent Anne Marie Schubert, who was also discussed as a possible threat to Bonta early on, finished fourth in the top-2 primary.)
However, Bonta has managed to build up name recognition and bipartisan support. Even the conservative Orange County Register has endorsed him. In a state where the Republican party label is often toxic, observers say, Bonta should win without much trouble in November.
Connecticut: William Tong (D)
Tong has strong name recognition and positive ratings as he completes his first term. He faces Republican nominee Jessica Kordas, an attorney with little profile in the state’s legal or political community. Meanwhile, the rest of the GOP ticket in Connecticut is considered underwhelming, likely providing Kordas with little if any updraft. Following in the footsteps of decades of successful Democratic AG candidates in the state, Tong should win easily.
Delaware: Kathy Jennings (D)
In this solidly blue state, Jennings is the heavy favorite over Republican attorney Julianne Murray, who lost the most recent gubernatorial race.
Illinois: Kwame Raoul (D)
In 2018, Raoul won the Democratic nomination via an 8-way primary, then won the office against a credible Republican, attorney and former Miss America Erika Harold. This year, he’s facing GOP nominee Tom DeVore, who is from downstate and who has challenged coronavirus mandates, often with outspoken rhetoric that isn’t expected to play well in the population center of Chicagoland. In addition, the rise in voter concern about abortion rights should help Democrats and hurt Republicans in Illinois, which is one of the few states in the Midwest to maintain clear access to the procedure.
Particularly given the generally weak Republican ticket in Illinois this year — GOP primary voters tended to eschew pro-business candidates in favor of culture warriors — Raoul should have clear sailing in November.
Maryland: Open seat (Brian Frosh, D, is retiring)
In a clash of titans, U.S. Rep. and former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown defeated retired district court judge and former Maryland first lady Katie Curran O’Malley in the Democratic primary. Brown would have been favored to win the general election under any scenario, but his race should be even easier now that Michael Peroutka, a former Anne Arundel County council member, won the GOP nomination. Peroutka has flirted with 9/11 conspiracies, suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned, and identifies with the Confederacy.
Massachusetts: Open seat (Maura Healey, D, is running for governor)
In the recent Democratic primary, former Boston City Council member Andrea Campbell won the nomination, securing just over half the vote, with attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan and former Commerce Department official Quentin Palfrey trailing by double-digit margins.
Campbell is heavily favored over the GOP nominee, attorney and veteran Jay McMahon (in fact, any of the Democrats would have been, given how solidly blue Massachusetts is).
New York: Letitia James (D)
James, who has gained a national profile for her office’s investigations into Trump’s business dealings, was considering a run for governor in the wake of Andrew Cuomo’s scandal-driven resignation, but she decided instead to run again for AG. Attorney Michael Henry, who has both the Republican and Conservative ballot lines, does not pose a serious challenge to James.
Rhode Island: Peter Neronha (D)
While several primary and general election races in Rhode Island have garnered significant attention, the AG race is not one of them.
Neronha has had a busy tenure in office, including an investigation into sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Providence, support for state gun control legislation, and efforts to weigh in on hospital mergers and consolidation.
Former prosecutor Charles Calenda, the GOP nominee, is not well-known, his fundraising has been modest, and Rhode Island is generally a blue state. Neronha is a heavy favorite to win a new term.
Vermont: Open seat (T.J. Donovan, D, retired)
In a surprise move in May, Donovan — who would have been a lock for reelection and was seen as a possible future gubernatorial candidate — resigned to take a job in the private sector. Vermont’s moderate Republican governor, Phil Scott, named a caretaker, Susanne Young, to fill the vacancy. But Young is not seeking a full term.
|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 Almanac of American Politics 2022. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.|