|Dear Readers: Last month, we announced that Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson would be analyzing several categories of state-level races for us this cycle. After looking at secretary of state races, Lou is now turning his attention to attorneys general, positions that often have a fair amount of power within state government and get added attention when voters are concerned about both crime and the criminal justice system.
— 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.
— Following the 2021 election, the GOP will hold 27 attorney general offices to 23 for the Democrats.
— Our analysis suggests that 6 AG races this year occupy the most competitive tier, 4 of which are seats currently held by Democrats and 2 of which are seats currently held by Republicans. Another 5 states have AG races that might become competitive by the fall, 3 of which are currently held by Democrats and 2 of which are held by the GOP.
The races for state AG
This year, 30 states will hold elections for attorney general. Historically, these positions have been influential, albeit in a low-profile way, due to their responsibility for spearheading criminal and civil cases in their states.
With former President Donald Trump continuing to make election fraud the centerpiece of his effort to return to the presidency — despite the lack of any evidence that there was widespread voting fraud when Trump lost the 2020 election — attention has been lavished on races for secretary of state, a similarly low-profile office that oversees elections in most states. Still, AG races are continuing to attract attention from political professionals who know that every down-ballot race could prove critical in a highly polarized political environment.
Currently, Republicans hold an edge nationally in AG seats. Once Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares (R) takes office in Virginia in a few days, Republicans will hold 27, compared to 23 for the Democrats, up from the 26-24 edge they hold at this moment. Among the 43 elected (rather than appointed) AG offices, the GOP will hold a small edge once Miyares takes office, 23 seats to 20 for the Democrats.
I have handicapped state AG races for the past decade for Governing, the Cook Political Report, and now for the Crystal Ball. In this, my first assessment of the 2022 AG races, I place 6 contests in the most competitive tier, 4 of which are seats currently held by Democrats and 2 of which are held by Republicans.
These 6 hottest AG races for 2022 are the ones in Wisconsin, Nevada, Michigan, and Iowa (among the Democratic-held seats) and Georgia and Arizona (among the GOP-held seats). There is significant overlap between states that have competitive AG races in 2022 and those that have competitive secretary of state races. Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin are on both lists. Each of these 5 states also have highly competitive gubernatorial races on tap for this fall, and 4 of the 5 have competitive Senate races as well (Michigan is the lone exception).
The historical pattern for midterm elections is that parties in control of the White House tend to fare poorly. This should give a boost to Republicans. Another factor that could help Republican AG candidates in particular is the perception among voters, and in some places the reality, that crime is rising.
However, the results of primary contests could scramble these factors in some states. Of the most competitive states for AG races this year, the contest in Arizona will be particularly intense, with both parties engaging in highly competitive primaries leading into what will likely be a competitive general election. Competitive primaries are also underway among Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan.
In another 5 states, we see the possibility that the AG contest could become competitive by the fall, depending on how the nomination battles shake out. The 4 states in this potentially competitive category include 3 states where Democrats currently hold the AG’s office (Minnesota, California, and Delaware) and 2 in which the GOP holds the office (Kansas, in which polarizing Republican Kris Kobach is seeking the GOP nomination, and Texas).
The remaining 19 states have AG races that, so far at least, do not look likely to turn competitive between the parties. These include 10 seats currently held by Republicans and 9 held by Democrats. Some of these states with non-competitive general elections will nonetheless play host to lively primaries, including Idaho and Oklahoma (for the Republicans) and Maryland and New Mexico (for the Democrats).
Here’s our breakdown of the 2022 AG races, with thumbnail descriptions of each contest as it stands today.
REPUBLICAN-HELD SEAT, NOT COMPETITIVE (10)
Alabama: Steve Marshall (R)
This race has attracted little attention so far, but Marshall has not drawn either Republican or general election opposition yet and, barring an unexpected development, he should be as safe as they come.
South Carolina: Alan Wilson (R)
There’s neither a Republican nor a Democratic challenger to Wilson on the horizon; he should be easily reelected.
Arkansas: Open (Leslie Rutledge, R, is term-limited)
Rutledge is running for lieutenant governor, leaving a contested GOP primary. The frontrunner is Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, a former U.S. House member and U.S. Attorney who has received Trump’s endorsement. In the GOP primary, he’ll face Leon Jones Jr., executive director of the state housing commission (and brother of Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Chris Jones). The sole Democratic contender so far is Jesse Gibson, a prominent trial lawyer and Little Rock Parks Commission chair. Gibson will be well-funded and has an active candidacy, but the winds are clearly blowing against any Democrat in Arkansas.
Nebraska: Open (Doug Peterson, R, is retiring)
Peterson’s pending retirement will open up this seat, but so far, one big candidate — Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers (R) — has managed to keep other major GOP figures out of the race. Hilgers, who lost the 2014 Republican primary for AG to Peterson, has been endorsed by key GOP figures in the state, including Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Deb Fischer. Assuming no other high-profile Republican enters the contest, it should be smooth sailing for Hilgers in November.
North Dakota: Open (Wayne Stenehjem, R, is retiring)
Shortly after the long-serving Stenehjem announced he was not running for another term, former GOP Lt. Governor and former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley announced his candidacy. No Democrat has announced; Wrigley should be a shoo-in.
Oklahoma: John O’Connor (R)
O’Connor was appointed AG in June 2021 to succeed Mike Hunter, who resigned. But O’Connor, who before his appointment withdrew as a nominee for a U.S. District Court judgeship, is being contested in the race for a full term. In the GOP primary, he’ll face Gentner Drummond, a former fighter pilot who 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 tribes who disagree with their stances on Indian-related issues, and they are expected to spend heavily on independent expenditures. This could help Drummond, though the GOP faceoff should be competitive. Whoever wins the GOP nod should have an easy time in the general election; no top-tier Democrat has emerged.
South Dakota: Jason Ravnsborg (R)
Ravnsborg faces impeachment over a 2020 vehicular accident in which a pedestrian was killed. Ravnsborg remains in office despite pleading no contest to two misdemeanors, but regardless of what happens to Ravnsborg, a credible GOP candidate is running for AG in 2022: Republican Marty Jackley, who previously served as AG and as a U.S. Attorney. Jackley is the frontrunner at the GOP convention to select the AG nominee, and he would be an all-but-certain winner in November in this solidly red state.
Florida: Ashley Moody (R)
Florida Democrats are making credible runs at Republican incumbents holding the governor’s office and a U.S. Senate seat this year, but Moody seems to have escaped a serious challenge. (Or perhaps the Democratic bench in this reddening state is simply too weak.) For now, Moody is a shoo-in for another term.
Idaho: Lawrence Wasden (R)
In ruby-red Idaho, all attention is focused on the GOP side. Wasden, the AG since 2002, faces not one but two challengers: former U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador and attorney and conservative activist Art Macomber. Wasden is considered the pragmatist in the race; his legal advice has sometimes been ignored by more aggressively conservative Republicans in the legislature. The gubernatorial race also pits a relatively pragmatic Republican incumbent, Brad Little, against several challengers to his right, and there may be cross-currents between the 2 contests. Labrador is the better known of Wasden’s challengers, but the 3-way race gives the incumbent a path to victory by plurality. Without a notable Democrat in the race, whoever wins the GOP nomination should win in November.
Ohio: Dave Yost (R)
Yost is considered broadly popular within Ohio’s ascendant GOP, and he has so far escaped a challenge from a fellow Republican. The Democrats have a credible candidate — state Rep. Jeff Crossman — who is seeking to tie Yost to an ongoing scandal over energy legislation that has ensnared other leading Ohio Republicans. But it’s not clear that this angle of attack will work. For now, Yost is a clear favorite for reelection. Like some other state attorneys general, Yost has held previous statewide office — he was elected state auditor in 2010 and served 2 terms.
REPUBLICAN-HELD SEAT, POTENTIALLY COMPETITIVE (2)
Kansas: Open (Derek Schmidt, R, is running for governor)
The GOP is favored to hold the AG office in Kansas, but if controversial Republican Kris Kobach wins the primary, the general election could become interesting. Kobach, who previously served as secretary of state, has spent his career aggressively focusing on alleged election fraud and illegal immigration. When Kobach won the nomination for governor in 2018, enough Republicans considered him too toxic to enable a Democrat, Laura Kelly, to defeat him. Two years later, Kobach lost the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat.
In his run for AG, Kobach faces state Sen. Kellie Warren and former prosecutor and health care executive Tony Mattivi. Kobach has sky-high name recognition, but many Republicans remember his loss to Kelly. Warren is probably the better-known of the 2 other GOP candidates running, and her base in the northeast part of the state includes many moderate Republicans who strongly oppose Kobach. Mattivi is less-known, but his prosecutorial background offers a potential upside if he can raise enough money to get his message out.
On the Democratic side, Chris Mann, a former police officer who is now a prosecutor in Wyandotte County (Kansas City), is running. His background gives him solid “law and order” credentials, which would make him a strong Democratic candidate if the GOP offers an opening.
If Warren or Mattivi wins the nomination, the GOP would be favorites to hold this office in November. But if Kobach is the nominee, this race becomes more competitive, albeit with a modest GOP lean.
Texas: Ken Paxton (R)
Despite his indictment for alleged securities fraud and an FBI investigation over abuse of office, Paxton has secured Trump’s endorsement and is the favorite to win renomination, either in the March 1 primary or in the May runoff. Still, he’ll have to overcome some obstacles to win.
In the GOP primary, Paxton faces state Land Commissioner George P. Bush (the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush), former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, and Rep. Louie Gohmert. Bush, Guzman and Gohmert are battling to finish second and keep Paxton under 50%, enabling a runoff.
Democrats aren’t sleeping on the race, either. The field includes attorneys Rochelle Mercedes Garza and Lee Merritt; former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski; and retired Harris County judge Mike Fields, a former Republican. The Democratic primary is considered likely to go to a runoff, with Garza favored to win one spot and Merritt and Jaworski seen as the strongest possibilities for the second.
If either Guzman or Bush were to dethrone Paxton for the nomination, then the GOP should be fine in November. But if Paxton secures the nomination, the Democrats would have a fighting shot at winning. Aside from the close Senate race, the Attorney General contest was Texas’s closest partisan statewide race of 2018 (Paxton won by less than 4 points).
REPUBLICAN-HELD SEAT, COMPETITIVE (2)
Arizona: Open (Mark Brnovich, R, is term-limited)
This open-seat race has attracted a flood of candidates from both parties, in a year in which several other statewide offices in Arizona — including the governorship, a U.S. Senate seat, and the secretary of state’s office — will feature highly competitive races.
The GOP field includes retired state Supreme Court Justice Andrew Gould; former federal prosecutor Lacy Cooper; manufacturing executive Dawn Grove; former Tucson City Council member Rodney Glassman, a Democrat-turned-Republican who was the Democratic challenger to the late Sen. John McCain in 2010; and attorneys Abe Hamadeh and Tiffany Shedd (Shedd lost a competitive U.S. House race in 2020).
The Democratic primary features former state Corporation Commission member Kris Mayes; former state Rep. Diego Rodriguez; and attorney Bob McWhirter. The general election should be competitive.
Georgia: Chris Carr (R)
Carr has avoided the worst of the intra-party strife between establishment Republicans and Trump-aligned Republicans in Georgia, which has been fueled by the party’s narrow losses in the presidential and senatorial races in 2020. Unlike Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Carr doesn’t face a Trump-backed primary challenger.
However, Carr is poised to face a credible Democrat: state Sen. Jen Jordan. Jordan is now the Democratic frontrunner after 2018 AG nominee Charlie Bailey decided to run for the state’s open lieutenant governorship instead. Carr goes into the general election as the favorite, but the gubernatorial run by Stacey Abrams is expected to keep Democratic turnout high, and it’s unclear whether divisive primaries for the other statewide offices will depress GOP turnout in November.
DEMOCRATIC-HELD SEAT, COMPETITIVE (4)
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 stiff 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 two Republicans, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, are also on the ballot this year.
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 will face a tough reelection in 2022, and so will Kaul. Conservative voters are especially animated by crime, gun policy, and public health mandates, a constellation of issues that should benefit whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be. The GOP field is relatively unformed, however. It includes at least two candidates: former state Rep. Adam Jarchow and Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney.
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 already worrying about their prospects in the gubernatorial and senatorial races.
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 like, but she could win in a strongly Republican environment.
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 two 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%.
Nessel has been pursuing prosecutions in the Flint water crisis, but she attracted unwanted attention last year when she became inebriated at a Michigan-Michigan State football game. (She apologized in a self-deprecating statement.)
The GOP nomination will be decided at a state convention in August. The Republican field includes Matthew DePerno, an attorney endorsed by Trump who has articulated election conspiracies; state Rep. Ryan Berman; and former state House Speaker Tom Leonard, who was Nessel’s general election opponent in 2018.
Leonard might be the GOP’s strongest nominee, while a DePerno nomination would weaken the GOP’s chances of ousting Nessel.
DEMOCRATIC-HELD SEAT, POTENTIALLY COMPETITIVE (3)
Minnesota: Keith Ellison (D)
Ellison has 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, could complicate his quest for a second term, but for now, he benefits from the reality that the GOP field is unsettled.
Four Republicans are running: former state Rep. Doug Wardlow, who lost to Ellison in 2018; former state Rep. Dennis Smith; and attorneys Jim Schultz and Lynne Torgerson. Minnesota leans blue, but if a strong GOP nominee emerges, the AG race could become competitive.
California: Rob Bonta (D)
Bonta was appointed to the post when Xavier Becerra was nominated by President Joe Biden as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Bonta is seeking a term of his own in 2022. He’s unopposed among Democrats, but the general could be interesting, at least by the standards of deep blue California.
Republican candidate Nathan Hochman is relatively non-ideological, with deep ties in Southern California and good fundraising skills. Meanwhile, independent candidate Anne Marie Schubert is also running. She is the Sacramento County District Attorney, although her departure from the GOP could be a sticking point among Republican voters.
Either of Bonta’s challengers could seize an opening by emphasizing cresting concerns about crime in the state, especially considering the aggressive positions on criminal justice reform that some Democrats have taken. Indeed, the results of some past ballot measures have suggested that even California Democrats hold moderate-to-conservative views on crime and justice issues. To be sure, the state’s strong blue lean leaves Bonta the favorite, any efforts by his challengers to veer too far to the right could backfire, and the state is extraordinarily expensive for a candidate who’s not already well known to run in. But this race is worth keeping an eye on.
Delaware: Kathy Jennings (D)
Jennings is presumed to be running for reelection (and, in an update to this piece we are adding after publication, allies of her campaign confirmed that she is). Two Republican candidates declared so far: Attorney Julianne Murray, who lost the most recent gubernatorial race, and Chuck Welch, a former state representative and Court of Common Pleas judge.
In such a blue state, Jennings should be on a glide path to victory. But a wild card is that Jennings, via a grand jury, has pursued the indictment of the state auditor, fellow Democrat Kathy McGuiness, on official misconduct and theft charges, with a trial scheduled for May. Despite the legal proceedings, McGuiness has declared her intention to run for reelection and has ignored calls to step down. As the case plays out, McGuinness may attack Jennings. This may not be enough to tilt the election against Jennings, but either of the two Republicans could conceivably benefit, at least on the margins.
DEMOCRATIC-HELD SEAT, NOT COMPETITIVE (9)
Colorado: Phil Weiser (D)
Weiser is well-placed to win reelection, following an active term that included an investigation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy. No Republican has emerged yet, though if one opts to run, this could shift categories.
Rhode Island: Peter Neronha (D)
Neronha is expected to run for a second term. He’s 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 has announced his candidacy as a Republican. But he’s not well-known, his fundraising has been modest, and Rhode Island is generally a blue state. Unless Calenda catches fire, Neronha should be able to win another term.
Maryland: Open (Brian Frosh, D, is retiring)
A Republican has not served as attorney general of Maryland since the 1950s. But the Democratic primary should be a doozy.
Barring the unexpected entry of another Democratic candidate, the primary will pit U.S. Rep. and former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown against retired district court judge and former Maryland first lady Katie Curran O’Malley. Both have ties to former Maryland Gov. (and onetime presidential candidate) Martin O’Malley: Brown was his lieutenant governor, and O’Malley is his wife. (Fun fact: Even the sole Republican in the race, Jim Shalleck, has an O’Malley tie, having lost the GOP nomination for Montgomery County state’s attorney in 1998 to Thomas O’Malley, Martin O’Malley’s father.) In addition, Katie Curran O’Malley’s father was J. Joseph Curran, who served as Maryland’s attorney general from 1987 to 2007, bowing out to avoid a conflict of interest as his son-in-law was seeking the governorship.
Brown would be the first Black attorney general in Maryland, while O’Malley would be the first woman to win the post. Both candidates bring strengths to the race, as well as some baggage. When Brown ran to succeed O’Malley as governor in 2014, he lost to Republican Larry Hogan, and his campaign effort was widely panned. (As a member of the U.S. House, observers say, his political skills have improved.) While O’Malley’s surnames have collectively been on the statewide ballot for more than three decades, she’s never run for office before, and Martin O’Malley’s policies as Baltimore mayor, including those on policing and crime, have had detractors, including many who are Black and might be drawn to Brown in the primary.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination should have an easy victory in November.
New Mexico: Open (Hector Balderas, D, is term limited)
Two credible Democrats are running to succeed Balderas: state Auditor and former state Democratic chair Brian Colón and Bernalillo County (Albuquerque) District Attorney Raúl Torrez.
Colón has the benefit of having run and won statewide; in fact, he holds the same position that Balderas occupied before running successfully for AG. However, Colón’s past connections to Balderas and another legal colleague, Marcus Rael, leave him open to spillover from ethics questions related to state contracts.
Torrez is running somewhat to Colón’s left, having emphasized police reform and alternatives to incarceration. But articulating this agenda could be tricky given that Albuquerque set a new record for homicides in 2021. In all likelihood, though, either candidate would be well-placed to win in November, especially since there is no declared Republican in the race yet.
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. Raoul’s reelection bid should be easier; he hasn’t attracted either a primary rival or a GOP challenger yet. (Billionaire Republican donor Ken Griffin has said he’s trying to fund a GOP slate for 2022, and that could yield a candidate before the March 14 filing deadline.)
In office, Raoul has defended Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker — often successfully — in lawsuits filed by vaccination and mask opponents. High homicide rates in Chicago could become an issue to energize Republicans, but to capitalize on the issue, they will need to find a credible candidate first. Meanwhile, with Secretary of State Jesse White’s retirement, Raoul will be the highest-ranking Black candidate on the Democratic ticket this fall. That should help cement his position as a strong favorite in November.
New York: Tish 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. Her decision to seek reelection appears to have cleared the field of potential primary opponents. The GOP has several lower-tier candidates in the race, but in this solidly blue state, none should pose a serious challenge to James.
Massachusetts: Maura Healey (D)
Healey is widely expected to run for the governorship that came open when Charlie Baker — who was perhaps the only Republican who could hold the Massachusetts governorship for his party — decided not to seek another term. Healey hasn’t officially jumped in the race yet, and if she somehow doesn’t, she would be a lock for reelection.
Even if Healey does vacate her position to run for governor, the Democrats should not have any trouble holding the AG office in 2022. At least two Democrats, Shannon Liss-Riordan and Quentin Palfrey, have suggested that they could run for AG if Healey runs for governor, and both are credible candidates. However, neither is sufficiently dominant to scare off other potential Democrats from running.
Connecticut: William Tong (D)
With nonexistent challenges from either party, Tong is a near-certain favorite to win a second term.
Vermont: T.J. Donovan (D)
Donovan has no Democratic, Republican, or third-party opponent yet and should be a lock to win another 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