Democratic Swell Buoys Attorneys General

 

In races for state attorney general, Democrats ousted the incumbent in Kansas and picked up two open seats from Republicans, increasing their hold on state top cop offices from 29 to 31, while the GOP picked up one Democratic seat in Wisconsin.

The biggest upset was in Kansas, where Democrat Paul Morrison defeated incumbent Republican Attorney General Phill Kline by 58 percent to 42 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting. Democrats also gained in Nevada and Ohio, winning open seats formerly held by Republicans. The GOP gained one formerly Democratic seat in Wisconsin, where incumbent Democratic Attorney General Peggy Lautenschlager had already been knocked out of the race in the primary.

Kline, a maverick social conservative, blamed national abortion rights groups for pouring nearly a million dollars into the race to help his Democratic opponent, who switched over from the GOP prior to the race. Kline angered critics by subpoenaing women's medical records from two abortion clinics. He also was accused by two abortion clinics of leaking some of the records to conservative TV talk show host Bill O'Reilly, but Kline denied he shared any documents.

A spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America, the nation's largest abortion rights group, said only volunteers, not cash, were sent to Kansas.

Democrats won all but two of 12 open attorneys general races, including Arkansas, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Ohio.

Wisconsin Republican J.B. Van Hollen, a former U.S. attorney, defeated Dane County Executive Kathleen M. Falk, a Democrat, to become the first Republican attorney general in Wisconsin in 16 years. Falk had defeated Lautenschlager in a bitter primary race that focused attention on the incumbent's 2004 guilty plea for drunken driving. Florida Republican Bill McCollum held onto that state's Republican-controlled attorney general office, defeating Democrat Walter Campbell.

Among the 30 races for attorney general Nov. 7, all eight incumbent Democrats won re-election and Republican incumbents held onto nine of 10 seats. Incumbent attorneys general in Iowa, Nebraska and South Carolina ran unopposed this year.

The office of attorney general is the second most powerful in state government and increasingly has served as a stepping stone to higher office. Three of four sitting attorneys general who ran for governor this year were elected. Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe (D), Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist (R) and New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D) won their bids for governor, while Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch (D) lost narrowly to incumbent Gov. Tom Pawlenty (R). Six current governors and seven U.S. senators are former state attorneys general.

The Democratic pickup in Kansas was surprising because defeating an incumbent attorney general is particularly difficult, said James E. Tierney , the director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School and former Democratic attorney general of Maine. The nature of the office — locking up bad guys, going after corrupt businesses and alerting consumers to fraud — generates a steady stream of positive news for incumbents to campaign on. In fact, three incumbent attorneys general in Iowa, Nebraska and South Carolina ran unopposed this year.

In addition, powerful business interests backing Republican attorneys general through groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) claime to have spent an estimated $10 million to $15 million each in hopes of expanding their hold on attorney general seats. The exact amount cannot be verified because local chambers of commerce and other groups that receive donations from these organizations do not have to report it.

In comparison, the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) was reported to have spent an estimated $2 million to support Democratic candidates this election cycle.

State attorneys general have been in the spotlight in recent years for taking on big tobacco, corporations such as Microsoft, and even the Bush administration. Corporations have chafed at what they see as an attempt by mostly Democratic attorneys general to regulate big businesses through multi-state litigation.

The top donors to groups such as RAGA have been corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, cigarette maker Philip Morris' parent Altria, casino operator Harrah's, Pepsi-Cola and AT&T, reported the The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.

Led by former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D), several states won the largest civil settlement in U.S. history against tobacco companies in 1998, requiring the companies to pay states more than $246 billion over 25 years. New York's Spitzer, who is moving from the attorney general's office to the governor's suite, made headlines suing major Wall Street firms for fraud, microchip manufacturers for price-fixing and the Bush administration and Midwest power plants over air pollution.

 
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