The State AG Races You Need to Watch

by Jim Geraghty
A GOP governor without a like-minded attorney general is considerably hobbled.

You can make an argument that state attorney-general races have the highest consequence-to-coverage ratio in the current political landscape.

The traditional law-enforcement duties of the office mean that the public tends to view state attorneys general as less partisan and ideological than other statewide officeholders — and often more highly than mere “politicians.” But the powers of the office give most state AGs wide discretion on which crimes to focus upon and allocate the most resources to. Furthermore, state attorneys general are increasingly performing two key roles for Republicans: first, ensuring that GOP-passed state laws actually emerge from legal challenges to have a real-world impact, and second, providing a federalist legal challenge to the Obama administration’s most far-reaching national initiatives.

Few consequential state laws don’t get challenged in a courtroom eventually. The groundbreaking collective-bargaining law passed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker would have been much less consequential without state attorney general J. B. Van Hollen’s willingness to enforce it and subsequently defend the law from legal challenges.

In previous eras, a state attorney general’s defense of enacted laws was a given. But increasingly, state AGs are choosing to not defend state laws they do not personally support. In Virginia, the country’s newest state attorney general, Mark Herring, announced upon taking office that he would not defend the state constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage; state attorneys general in Pennsylvania and California have done the same. John W. Suthers, the term-limited Republican attorney general of Colorado, calls the practice a “litigation veto” and contends it is harmful to government; he points out that “my office was obliged to admit that the First Amendment prevents us from enforcing a Colorado law requiring marijuana-focused magazines to be hidden from children in stores.”

Particularly creative or determined state attorneys general can almost always find some angle to justify pursuing legal action. Last year New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman urged the NFL to investigate whether incoming potential players were improperly asked about their sexual orientation during the league’s combine, contending that the practice would be illegal in New York. (The combine is held in Indianapolis.) As ESPN reported, “Schneiderman asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to call him by next Wednesday to schedule a meeting on the matter.”

Attorneys general are popularly elected in 43 states. In Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming, they are appointed by the governor. Maine’s AG is elected by the state legislature, and Tennessee’s is appointed by the supreme court.

There are nine state AG races that are considered particularly competitive in 2014; many, though not all, are in states that feature competitive governor’s races.

Three incumbent Republican AGs can expect particularly stiff reelection challenges in the coming year:
 

Michigan
Incumbent Bill Schuette is likely to be favored against Democrat Mark Totten, who is quick to emphasize that he’s “committed to protecting Michigan families from crime — violent crime, but economic crimes as well.” Totten pledges he’ll “demand accountability from wrongdoers, including predatory lenders as well as their Wall Street backers,” and hits Schuette for not joining a lawsuit against Standard & Poor’s launched by other state attorneys general.

Schuette emphasizes his work against human trafficking and illegal gambling rings, his monitoring of propane suppliers for price-gouging during the current harsh winter, and the state’s first conviction for terrorism, prosecuting a man for a three-day shooting spree.

Florida
In the Sunshine State, two Democrats are competing for the right to take on incumbent Pam Bondi: state-house minority leader Perry Thurston and George Sheldon, a former secretary of the state’s department of children and families. Bondi’s record indicates a willingness to take conservative stances that aren’t always popular, bragging that she

helped reverse the automatic restoration of felons’ rights; led on the issue of job licensing safety and fairness; continues to fight the federal government’s overreach of authority in the lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency; and was a leader on the 26-state constitutional challenge to the government health care takeover, a case that was taken all the way to the Supreme Court.

Sheldon issued a seven-page paper on the benefits of early-childhood education and brain development, stating:

The time has come for a coordinated effort address the emotional, physical and educational needs of young children. As attorney general, Sheldon will help enlist private businesses, private non-profits, local communities and local school systems in promoting early childhood development.

Arizona
Governing magazine calls Arizona’s Republican attorney general, Tom Horne, “the most embattled incumbent AG in the country, due to an overlapping set of campaign finance and vehicular allegations.” He spent a part of this week in a courtroom as a defendant, “accused of illegally coordinating with an independent expenditure committee, Business Leaders for Arizona, during his 2010 campaign to target his Democratic opponent with negative advertising.” He contends that those investigating him are misinterpreting the evidence, and told the Arizona Republic that his polling has him ahead, even with his current headaches. He touts his record fighting drug cartels, mounting sting operations to catch rip-off artists, and defending Arizona’s Proposition 200 voter-ID law at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Democratic challenger Felecia Rotellini, who previously served as superintendent of the state’s department of financial institutions, is demonstrating solid fundraising numbers.
 

Then there are several open-seat races expected to be competitive:

Arkansas
Perhaps the most competitive race will come in Arkansas, where incumbent Democrat Dustin McDaniel is term-limited. Democratic state representative Nate Steel is running on his unwillingness to become a “tall-building lawyer” and choosing instead to work in his family-law practice in Howard County. The American Conservative Union rated Arkansas state legislators in 2013 and Steel scored a 33 out of 100.

North Little Rock attorney David Sterling, a Republican, is running on an explicitly federalist and conservative message:

Arkansans want an Attorney General who will protect our liberty from an overreaching federal government, protect our children from predators, and protect our tax dollars from fraud. The federal government is slowly creeping in on state authority and individual liberty, and my first priority as your Attorney General will be to defend the Constitution and protect the liberty of all Arkansans.

Former RNC legal counsel Leslie Rutledge is embracing a similar theme, asserting that she “knows that the state Attorney General is the most important elected official in the federalist system when it comes to protecting states rights.” She has been endorsed by Mike Huckabee. Arkansas Republicans hold their primary May 20.

Wisconsin
Incumbent J. B. Van Hollen surprised his fellow Republicans by announcing he would not seek another term.

Two Democrats are competing for the AG nomination, Dane County district attorney Ismael Ozanne and longtime state representative Jon Richards of Milwaukee. The likely Republican nominee is Waukesha County district attorney Brad Schimel, who’s warning that his rivals would turn the office into a partisan operation: “My top priority will be to serve and protect. In addition, our state cannot return to an era when the Attorney General’s office is filing frivolous lawsuits to score political points or to drive an ideological agenda.”

Richards boasts that “I have a long record of fighting for every woman’s right to control her own health care decisions” and pledges he’ll “restore the Department of Justice’s historic role in protecting consumers and preserving Wisconsin’s natural resources,” while Ozanne filed an open-meetings lawsuit against state GOP leaders over the procedure they followed in passing Walker’s collective-bargaining overhaul.

Colorado
Incumbent Republican John Suthers is term-limited. Former Adams County district attorney Don Quick is expected to be the Democratic nominee, while two Republicans are competing for their party’s nomination: House minority leader Mark Waller and Cynthia Coffman, currently the chief deputy attorney general, who is married to Republican U.S. representative Mike Coffman.

Waller says he’s running “to ensure that our justice system treats every Coloradan fairly. It doesn’t matter if they are the victim of discrimination or one of our many small businesses facing a frivolous law suit; all parties deserve to be treated fairly.” He contends a bill that the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed last year amounts to the “Trial Lawyer Employment Act of 2013” and warns that the new law has “potential to have a devastating impact on our economy because frivolous lawsuits will force many of our small businesses to shut their doors leaving their employees without jobs.”

Coffman pledges:

If elected as your Attorney General, I will continue to take legal action and fight back when local jurisdictions break the law with their attempts to ban hydraulic fracturing. Efforts to outlaw hydraulic fracturing effectively deprive landowners and companies of their property rights in contravention of the law. Similarly, bans pertaining to oil and gas processes result in an odd patchwork of regulations that serve to impede activity deemed necessary by the Colorado General Assembly. . . . In those instances when interest groups and local governments try to usurp authority from law-abiding landowners and individuals in the oil and gas industry, I will enforce the law — even if it means taking overreaching, anti-drilling jurisdictions to court.

Colorado Republicans hold their primary June 24.

New Mexico
Incumbent Democrat Gary King is term-limited.

State auditor Hector Balderas is running for the Democrats. Republicans are expected to nominate Susan Riedel, who touts that she is known statewide for “her successful prosecutions in some of the state’s most infamous criminal cases — including the ‘Baby Brianna’ case and the conviction of Jesse Avalos for the murder of New Mexico State University freshman Carly Martinez.” Riedel’s campaign is likely to emphasize her personal story and family; her campaign website notes:

Riedel’s compassion for the victims of crime was reinforced in 2004 when her own husband was killed by a drunk driver during a family trip to a soccer tournament in 2004. She and her three sons persevered, with the oldest, Christopher, earning admission to the United States Naval Academy and a tour in Afghanistan as a SeaBee. Chris is now enrolled in the Georgetown University Law Center and will follow his mother into the field of law, along with her second son Jonathan, a Deputy Sheriff in Dona Ana County, and youngest son Patrick, a college student.

 

There is one other state attorney-general office currently held by a Democrat where the GOP has a shot (but remains an underdog), in . . . 

Rhode Island
Peter Kilmartin, the Democratic incumbent, is running for his second term in 2014, and in a heavily Democratic state, he remains a favorite. But Governing magazine concludes: “Kilmartin has one potential bit of baggage: While serving in the legislature, he voted to support bonds for 38 Studios, a video game company affiliated with major leaguer Curt Schilling, that failed spectacularly, exposing the state to major losses.” The Republican nominee is expected to be state senator Dawson Hodgson, and he’s already pursuing the issue with vigor: “The AG voted for the 38 Studios project as a rep. He is, in fact, partially responsible for this. Unlike the other legislators who were part of this he’s the only one who six months later became the attorney general. He could have done something about this.” However, Hodgson will need a serious influx of funds to make the race competitive. He has $21,717 in cash on hand, compared with Kilmartin’s $154,000.

 

The Republican State Leadership Committee was formed in 2002 to provide national assistance for GOP candidates running for lower-ticket offices — lieutenant governors, state attorneys general, secretaries of state, and state legislators. The RSLC spent about $30 million in the 2010 cycle and more than $40 million in the 2012 cycle. Now the branch that dealt with state AG races, the Republican Attorneys General Association, is exploring the possibility of becoming a separate entity — an indication of how consequential the position has become to the GOP agenda at the state level.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO. He is not related to Alaska’s attorney general, Michael Geraghty.