AG Contests Attract Serious Attention
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
Once, races for state attorney general were quiet affairs. No longer. In most states, attorneys general wield enormous power in such areas as consumer protection and criminal prosecutions - and they can use the job to vault into higher office.
Meanwhile, businesses, unions, trial lawyers and political parties are spending increasing attention and money in these races.
Democrats historically have held the lion's share of attorneys general's offices, including many in solidly red states. After Republican gains in the mid-1990s and the early part of this decade, the Democrats buttressed their lead. In 2006, the party increased its hold by two, to 31-19 overall and 27-16 in popularly elected positions. (The rest are appointed.)
In 2008, 10 states will hold elections for attorney general. This is the first of "Out There"'s periodic assessments of these contests, which are rated "Vulnerable" for the party in power, "Worth Watching" or "Safe."
The most likely contest to attract big national money is the re-election bid of four-term West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw (D). Both McGraw and his brother Warren, the state's former chief justice, have been longtime targets of business groups, who accuse the brothers of coziness with labor unions and trial lawyers. Critics say that Darrell McGraw, among other things, has unfairly allocated money collected from consumer-protection suits without consulting the Legislature.
McGraw, who defends those practices, twice has won re-election only narrowly. Meanwhile, business groups have a blueprint from 2004, when his brother was ousted as chief justice after a hard-hitting campaign bankrolled by $1.7 million from coal-mining executive Don Blankenship. If Blankenship or an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, another longtime critic, decides to target McGraw in 2008, the contest could turn into a barnburner.
So far, the only GOP candidate is Hiram Lewis, an Army Ranger and Iraq War veteran who fell roughly 6,000 votes short of defeating McGraw in 2004. Republicans say other candidates could emerge before the Jan. 26 filing deadline, though the biggest threat to McGraw could come if Carte Goodwin, a senior lawyer in the administration of popular Gov. Joe Manchin III (D), were to challenge McGraw in the primary, as some McGraw critics would like.
With Attorney General Mike McGrath (D) term-limited, Montana promises the most wide-open attorney general race of the cycle. The Democratic contenders are county prosecutor and state House Minority Leader John Parker, who has strong support among legislators; former state Sen. Mike Wheat, a deep-pocketed trial lawyer who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam; and Steve Bullock, who has close ties to popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and who helped spearhead a successful ballot measure to boost the state minimum wage.
The quieter Republican primary pits Tim Fox and Lee Bruner, two law-firm attorneys with limited political backgrounds. Fox has won the endorsement of three former governors and has easily out-raised Bruner so far.
The decision by four-term Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon (D) to run for governor in 2008 leaves a highly competitive open seat. Three Democrats - state Sen. Chris Koster and state Reps. Jeff Harris and Margaret Donnelly are vying in what should be a cutthroat primary, with Nixon remaining neutral. The most aggressive attacks so far have come from Harris and Donnelly against Koster, who was a moderate Republican before switching parties earlier this year.
On the GOP side, a potentially strong candidate, U.S. Attorney and former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, decided not to run, leaving the GOP nod to state Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons. If Koster can survive the primary, he might have the best chance of winning the general election.
Attorney General Tom Corbett is the only Republican holding a state-level elected office in Pennsylvania . But Democrats face an uphill fight in electing their first attorney general. Corbett has led a probe of whether legislative staffers were given bonuses for doing political work. While Democrats are the biggest offenders so far, Corbett gets kudos for taking an evenhanded approach. Two leading Democrats passed on the race: Jim Eisenhower, who twice lost bids for attorney general including once to Corbett, and Chris Casey, the brother of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D), leaving the field to Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli. Morganelli is considered smart and aggressive, and he should have money and Democratic support to make it a race, but Corbett hasn't made himself too vulnerable.
Two-term Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter (R) has pushed some high-profile issues that resonate with voters, including implementation of the "Do Not Call" registry, a return of sectarian prayers to the state Legislature and prosecution of public corruption in Lake County, which includes Gary, Ind. But with Indiana incumbents on the hot seat this year over property taxes and the economy, a Democratic challenger could find an opening. Democrat Linda Pence, a prominent Indianapolis attorney, is weighing a run.
For a Republican running in a blue state, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna has positioned himself nicely. The ambitious McKenna has eschewed a hard-line conservative approach, pushing lawmakers to tighten background checks for gun purchases and joining California in suing the federal government over emissions standards. No Democrat has jumped in yet, though Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, a former tough-on-crime prosecutor, could mount a strong challenge.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) was one of the few figures who came out of the Duke lacrosse rape case with their reputation enhanced. When Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong's case began to fall apart, Cooper's office took it over and dismissed the charges against the accused players, with Cooper publicly slamming Nifong for his role. A GOP challenger, trial lawyer Bob Crumley, is well-known in the Greensboro area and has both deep pockets and extensive political connections. But Cooper is considered a strong favorite to win a third term.
With the GOP field empty, the open-seat race for Oregon attorney general is all about the Democratic primary. The race to succeed the retiring three-term Attorney General Hardy Myers (D) pits state Rep. Greg Macpherson, 57, against former federal prosecutor and law professor John Kroger, 41, a clash more of style than substance. Macpherson, who represents an affluent suburb and works for one of the state's most prominent law firms, is the "establishment," almost status-quo candidate. Kroger, who prosecuted drug, organized crime and Enron cases for the federal government in New York before coming to Oregon to teach law, is the insurgent who promises aggressive prosecutions of polluters and other corporate transgressors. Either Democrat would be a strong favorite in the general.
Two-term UtahAttorney General Mark Shurtleff (R) has ruffled feathers, especially among conservatives, by backing hate-crimes legislation, opposing an anti-gay-marriage amendment and, most explosively, prosecuting splinter sects that practice polygamist-arranged marriages with underage girls, a crusade that led to death threats. But many voters respect his prosecutions, and Democrats acknowledge that his seat is not a target.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell (D) will have no problem winning a sixth full term.
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call , where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates, CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .