Monday, November 7, 2016

Loose Ends: 2016 Comptroller, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Labor, and Commissioner of Public Lands Race Ratings

If you're still with me, congratulations! You've made it to the final installment of my 2016 race ratings. Below you'll find a grab bag of orphan executive offices—a comptroller, two agriculture commissioners, a commissioner of labor, and a commissioner of public lands—that weren't numerous enough for their own standalone articles. But what they lack in quantity they make up for in excitement. Every race profiled below is competitive to some degree, and two of them rank among the most-watched downballot races of the 2016 cycle. And a third involves the one and only Elevator Queen.

Below are my final batch of race ratings for 2016's constitutional-office elections. To see all 54 campaigns I've profiled and handicapped this year, click on the 2016 Ratings tab. Thank you for following along, and happy downballot election watching on Tuesday!


  • Illinois: Leans Democratic. We've saved one of the most interesting constitutional-officer elections for last. Just after being elected to a second term as comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka died of a sudden stroke in December 2014. Newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner appointed fellow Republican Leslie Munger to the post ahead of a special election in 2016. It was just one of the ways that Rauner tried to radically reshape Illinois in his image during his first two years—but it was the only one that would be put to the test on the ballot. Now, Munger's campaign to finish out the rest of the turn has become a referendum on Rauner's governorship. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Susana Mendoza is a protégée of Democratic State House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rauner's nemesis in Springfield. The campaign has gotten as icy as the Rauner-Madigan relationship itself: Mendoza is accusing Munger of "laundering" campaign funds through the Illinois Republican Party to pay for Rauner's campaign to weaken Madigan's legislative majority, while Munger has attacked Mendoza for taking a double salary as both a legislator and an employee of the City of Chicago. Thanks to their wealthy patrons, the comptroller race has become more high-profile and expensive than many U.S. Senate and governor's races on the ballot this year. Mendoza has raised $3.5 million and has spent $2 million of it on a statewide ad blitz; Munger has raised $8.9 million and dumped $4.6 million into TV. A full $8 million of Munger's donations came from just three donors, one of whom was Rauner himself. Illinois's blue hue, made even worse this year by Donald Trump, would normally make Mendoza a heavy favorite, but it's hard to look past that spending gap.

Commissioner of Agriculture

  • North Carolina: Likely Republican. Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler was reelected in both 2008 and 2012 by five percentage points—consistent, right? In 2012, his win even came against his 2016 Democratic opponent, Walter Smith. The environment for Republicans will be a mite more challenging this year, but Troxler is prepared. He is on the airwaves with a modest television campaign, while Smith has spent nearly every cent in his bank account and still has put out less than a third of Troxler's $312,035 spent. If Smith wins, it won't be because of anything he did, but rather a deep-penetrating Democratic wave in the Tarheel State.
  • West Virginia: Leans Republican. It's another rematch in West Virginia: in 2012, Democrat Walt Helmick beat Republican Kent Leonhardt 51.6% to 48.4%, and Leonhardt has spent the last four years plotting revenge. He worked up a fundraising head start, and now he has outspent the incumbent $107,790 to $26,193. The big issue in the campaign? Potatoes. Helmick has invested a lot of his department's shrinking budget into helping West Virginia develop a potato-growing industry, but Leonhardt says it won't work and it's a waste of funds. The narrow margin last time strongly suggests that West Virginians haven't accepted Helmick the way they have other conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, and the state has only gotten more Republican since 2012. If Leonhardt does indeed win, Republicans will own all 12 agriculture commissioners in the U.S.

Commissioner of Labor

  • North Carolina: Tossup. Everyone in North Carolina knows the face of Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, a.k.a. the Elevator Queen. In 2005, Berry decreed that a portrait of the labor commissioner—who is in charge of elevator inspections in North Carolina—should adorn every elevator in the state, and thus a cult figure was born. As friend of the blog Jacob Smith has researched, Berry's free publicity has been good for a few extra votes in elevator-dense communities across the state—which very well may have made the difference in the Republican's extremely close 2008 and 2012 re-election campaigns. She's in for another tough one in 2016 against Democrat Charles Meeker, the former mayor of Raleigh. He has outspent Berry $317,450 to $138,648, and North Carolina appears to have migrated leftward this year in other races.

Commissioner of Public Lands

  • Washington: Leans Democratic. In case you haven't gotten the hint, land is a pretty big issue in the West, so it's not surprising that this open-seat race has erupted into a hyperbolic war of words and a sinkhole of special-interest money. Either Democrat Hilary Franz, an environmental nonprofit executive, or Republican Steve McLaughlin, a rancher and Navy veteran, will soon take charge of Washington's 5.6 million acres of public land—a whopping fourth of the state's total land area. McLaughlin has aligned himself with the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest's long-running fight over deforestation, saying proceeds should go to funding schools. Franz and her allies at the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) have accused McLaughlin of being a climate-change denier and opposing public ownership of land. A cable TV ad by the LCV has used McLaughlin's coziness with timber and alleged support of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation (McLaughlin agreed with their grievances but opposed their lawbreaking) against him. The LCV has been merely the second-biggest spender of the five Democratic independent-expenditure groups that have sunk almost $300,000 into the campaign. That has helped break a rough tie in the candidates' spending ($464,493 by McLaughlin, $420,570 by Franz) to give the Democrat a slight edge; she led 36% to 31% in a late October poll. If McLaughlin wins, there will be no elected Democrats serving as public-lands commissioner anywhere in the country.

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