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:
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.
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.
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:
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.