Friday, November 4, 2016

An Audit of Auditors: 2016 Auditor Race Ratings

Thirty-two down; 22 to go. State auditors don't make for the sexiest election campaigns; the job is usually reliant on being as nonpartisan as possible, not fiery and competitive. Auditors are the watchdogs of state government; they audit the books to make sure taxpayer money is being spent legally and efficiently. Sometimes, they bask in the sunlight for uncovering fraud, waste, and abuse; other times, as you'll see below, they themselves are committing those crimes.

Thirty-four states have auditors, but fewer than half of all states—23—elect them, making the job an awkward middle constitutional office between the ubiquitous AGs and SOSes and the obscure one-off public-lands commissioners and mine inspectors. Republicans currently occupy 14 auditor's offices, and Democrats sit in nine. However, thanks to very different Democratic fortune in presidential years vs. midterms, that party is defending a huge share of the seven seats on the ballot in 2016: five, compared to two currently held by Republicans. Most of the races are predetermined, but in my estimation, the GOP does have a clear shot at sniping one state away from their rivals—a seat they haven't won in 88 years.

Below are my race ratings for auditor; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • North Carolina: Likely Democratic. There's so much action in North Carolina this year—every big race is too close to call—that maybe there just wasn't enough to go around for the state auditor's race. Democratic incumbent Beth Wood faces former FBI agent Charles Stuber in what has so far been a quiet race. Stuber has barely had a cent to spend, and in this anti–HB 2 environment, there's not much reason to think he could topple a Democratic incumbent without much stronger tailwinds. Nevertheless, the state's closeness at least leaves open the possibility of an upset.
  • North Dakota: Solid Republican. Although five-term Republican incumbent Robert Peterson is finally retiring this year, no Democrat filed to try to replace him. As a result, this is a lock for GOP candidate Josh Gallion.
  • Pennsylvania: Likely Democratic. We know Pennsylvania is a swing state (kind of), and that the offices of attorney general and treasurer were recently stained by unscrupulous Democrats, but Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has remained above the fray. The incumbent doesn't seem to face much of a threat from Republican John Brown, who has raised only $77,112 all year, but DePasquale is taking the challenge seriously enough that he's run a steady stream of campaign ads. If the GOP unexpectedly surges in Pennsylvania this year, DePasquale could certainly lose, but for now he's the favorite.
  • Utah: Solid Republican. You have to go back to the 1996 attorney general election to find any Democrat, at any level, who has won statewide in Utah. That's why Republican Auditor John Dougall is at no risk of losing his first re-election campaign.
  • Vermont: Solid Democratic. Incumbent Doug Hoffer seeks his third term in 2016 under the banners of both the Democratic and Progressive Parties. His Republican opponent, Dan Feliciano, is a former Libertarian candidate for governor (he got 4.4%) and hasn't even raised enough money to trigger a campaign-finance report. Be ready to feel the Hoff on Election Day.
  • Washington: Leans Democratic. In 2012, Washington elected Democrat Troy Kelley to be its watchdog against fraud and abuse. Little did they know that Kelley had committed fraud himself—stealing $3 million from his clients during his prior gig as a real-estate investor. He wasn't much better as an elected official; Kelley also hired an old friend to work for Washington's auditor office... remotely, from California. Kelley's trial is ongoing, and he has managed to avoid resignation so far, but he's sure as hell not running again for Democrats in 2016. That task falls to former Pierce County Supervisor Pat McCarthy, who will work to combat the perception of Democratic corruption. She has her work cut out for her against well-known Republican Mark Miloscia, who first ran for the auditor's office in 2012—as a conservative Democrat. A 14-year veteran of the State House, he finally switched parties in 2014 and won a seat in the State Senate. Miloscia represents a Democratic-leaning suburban Seattle district and has a proven ability to grab crossover votes. The Republican finished in a comfortable first place in the August all-party primary, though the two Democrats combined would have beaten him 53% to 37%. An October poll gave McCarthy a 39%-to-29% lead, but of course, with that many undecideds, this one could still go either way.
  • West Virginia: Leans Republican. For the first time since 1977, someone named Glen Gainer is not auditor of West Virginia. Democrat Glen Gainer III held the post from 1993 through this year, when he resigned to take a job in the private sector. Prior to that, his father, Glen Gainer Jr., sat in the big chair for 16 years. The open-seat race the younger Gainer leaves behind will be very interesting. Republicans have not won this office for close to a century (since 1928), and West Virginia is, of course, an ancestrally Democratic state. But the Democratic candidate, self-employed auditor Mary Ann Claytor, has no political experience, and she won the primary almost by accident against a better-funded candidate who was endorsed by most of the state's prominent Democrats. By contrast, her Republican opponent, JB McCuskey, is already a state delegate. (Point: McCuskey.) Donald Trump will also have huge coattails in West Virginia (I'm thinking it will be his best performance in the entire country), and the state showed in 2014 that it was fed up with being a slave to candidates with "Ds" next to their names. (Point: McCuskey.) If Claytor were a well-established Democratic incumbent, I'd say inertia would keep her alive. As is, I would personally bet on McCuskey, who has spent $166,356 to Claytor's $18,518. However, West Virginia's schizophrenic political identity makes the contest very unpredictable, especially without any polling. Was the Republican sweep of West Virginia in 2014 a one-time occurrence thanks to the national political environment and low turnout? Or has the switch finally been flipped in West Virginia where the Democratic Party has permanently lost its grip on the Mountain State, not only in federal races, but in state government as well? Perhaps more than any other, the result of this race will be very instructive as to the answer.

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