Several AG Contests Still Tight
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
Although 11 states are holding elections for attorney general this year, the campaigns haven't been grabbing many headlines in light of higher-charged contests for president, Congress and governor. But there are still some close races out there.
In attorney general offices across the country, Democrats hold a 31-19 lead overall and 27-16 in those slots that are popularly elected. While the numbers are unlikely to shift dramatically this year, Republicans are entering the home stretch hanging on to some real opportunities.
"The large and highly partisan turnouts that mark presidential elections make it extraordinarily difficult for the message of a candidate for attorney general to get through to the voters," said former Maine Attorney General James Tierney. "This is especially difficult for first-time candidates."
Two open seats currently held by Democrats in Missouri and Montana are virtual toss-ups. A Democratic-held seat in West Virginia is under aggressive fire from business groups, although the incumbent remains favored. Most Democratic incumbents are holding their own, but the party's takeover opportunities are more limited, with the best chance for a flip likely coming in Indiana.
The presidential race - while a distraction for voters - could play a significant role in these races, experts say, especially in the five states that are also hotly contested battleground states: Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Two others - Montana and Washington - are in the next tier of competitive presidential states. A sweep or near-sweep of these states by either Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain could trickle down to the attorney general races.
Here is the latest rundown of the contests rated by "Out There" as "Vulnerable" for the party in power, "Worth Watching" or "Safe."
The seat vacated by four-term Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon (D) has spawned a highly competitive race. The winner of the Democratic primary, by less than 1,000 votes, was state Sen. Chris Koster, a one-time Cass County prosecutor who had been a moderate Republican before switching parties earlier this year. He faces state Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons (R), who did not face primary opposition. Neither candidate's campaign has attracted much attention. In the meantime, any bump from the candidacies of Obama and Nixon - the favorite to win the governorship - may be nullified because straight-ticket voting is no longer allowed in the state.
Montana 's open-seat race, caused by the term-limiting of Democrat Mike McGrath, is a toss-up, largely because the candidates aren't well known, and because they have raised similar amounts of money. Steve Bullock, who spearheaded a successful ballot measure to boost the state minimum wage, won a three-way Democratic primary. Tim Fox, an attorney who was endorsed by three former governors, won a two-way Republican contest. Both are considered accomplished and likable.
Four-term West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw (D) has a big target on his back from business groups who believe he's too close to unions and trial lawyers. His challenger, Republican attorney Dan Greear, criticizes McGraw for allocating money from pro-consumer lawsuits without consulting the Legislature, and for assigning plaintiffs' law firms to carry out many of those suits, which allows them to reap sizable rewards. Three groups, including the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, are running ads critical of McGraw. A similar ad campaign four years ago was almost enough to knock off McGraw, who won by only about 6,000 votes.
But the appeal of his colorful, populist approach in West Virginia shouldn't be discounted. One recent independent poll had McGraw leading Greear, 49 percent to 32 percent.
With Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter (R) not seeking a third term, the contest to succeed him pits Carter's chief deputy attorney general, Greg Zoeller (R), against Indianapolis attorney Linda Pence (D). Both are respected, and neither is especially well known statewide, so it should be a horse race. In this contest, coattails could matter: Zoeller has done some joint TV ads with Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), who appears to be pulling away in his re-election bid, while Pence should benefit from the surprising strength of the Obama campaign in the state.
Ohio is electing a new attorney general to fill the final two years of Marc Dann's term. Dann (D) unceremoniously left office after a sexual harassment scandal. State Treasurer Richard Cordray (D) has the edge over Mike Crites (R), thanks to a large fundraising lead and better name identification from already having run a statewide campaign. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, Cordray led Crites, 44 percent to 26 percent.
Crites, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and later became a U.S. attorney, is known for prosecuting baseball's Pete Rose. But he entered the race after three higher-profile Republicans took a pass. Meanwhile, Robert Owens, a limited-government candidate, took 13 percent in a SurveyUSA poll that showed Cordray beating Crites, 44 percent to 33 percent. A showing like that in November could eat into Crites' base more than Cordray's.
In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Tom Corbett, the only Republican currently holding a state-level elected office there, is best known for his high-profile probe of whether legislative staffers were given bonuses for doing political work. His opponent, District Attorney John Morganelli of Northampton County, charges that Corbett's efforts to investigate Republicans as well as Democrats came too late and shows bias.
Morganelli, a tough-on-crime conservative who is not well known outside his home base, is also running a near-shoestring campaign: Corbett doubled Morganelli's fundraising from mid-May to mid-September and outspent him 14 to 1 during the same period. Another hurdle for Morganelli: No Democrat has won the attorney general's office in the Keystone State since it became an elective position three decades ago.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) remains the favorite, building on his well-reviewed first two terms, which included dismissing the Duke lacrosse rape case charges and giving the prosecutor, Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong, a public dressing-down. Republican Bob Crumley, who owns numerous plaintiffs' law firms in central North Carolina, is going after Cooper for alleged shortcomings in gang prosecutions to his oversight of the crime lab.
Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna defeated Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg in the state's "top two" primary, 57 percent to 43 percent, signaling that the race is McKenna's to lose. While Ladenburg was an aggressive prosecutor and is a credible candidate, he has about one-third of the money McKenna has, and his share of the primary vote trailed that of other down-ballot Democratic candidates. That may be because McKenna, a likely future gubernatorial candidate, has leveraged solid reviews of his tenure into appeal across both parties.
The open-seat race for Oregon attorney general was settled in the Democratic primary. Former federal prosecutor and law professor John Kroger, running as a "change" candidate who would aggressively prosecute polluters and protect consumers, defeated state Rep. Greg Macpherson. Kroger also won enough write-in votes to qualify as the Republican candidate, so he faces only Constitution Party candidate James Leuenberger, an attorney who has run twice unsuccessfully for judicial posts.
Two-term Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff (R), who's nationally known for prosecuting members of polygamist sects who marry underage girls, is leading underfunded Democrat Jean Welch Hill, 61 percent to16 percent, according to a mid-September Deseret News/KSL-TV poll.
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell (D) is essentially assured a sixth term. He's running against Republican perennial candidate Karin Kerin, an attorney, engineer and transgendered rights activist, and Progressive Charlotte Dennett, who is promising to prosecute President Bush for murder if elected.
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.