2010 Election: State Attorneys General Battle for Control

A potent force in local and national politics, no less than 30 state attorney general offices are being contested this fall.
by | August 30, 2010
 

It's no surprise that the 2010 election cycle is looking ominous for Democrats. The party is in danger of losing the U.S. House and Senate. It's poised to fall below a majority of the governorships, and is about to lose a slew of state legislative chambers.

So what about state attorney general races? Pretty much the same story. A 32-to-18 Democratic edge over the Republicans is distinctly at risk.

According to interviews with dozens of partisan and nonpartisan sources in the 30 states with attorney general elections this fall, the Democrats are poised to lose between six and 12 AG posts. If they suffer a net loss of just six seats, the Democrats would hold on to their now-solid majority, though by just a single seat. But if the Democrats were to lose a net 12 seats, they'd see the GOP take the lead by the same 3-to-2 margin they currently enjoy.

This is the third cycle in which I've handicapped and analyzed the attorney general races; it marks the first time the project has run in Governing. The previous projects were published in Roll Call in 2006, and Stateline.org in 2008.

Typically, the AG races are analyzed once in the summer and once in the fall, with late-breaking updates added through Election Day.

In all, 43 AG offices are popularly elected. The remaining seven are appointed by a governor, the Legislature or the state Supreme Court.

Of those 43 elected seats, the Democrats currently control 27 seats to the Republicans' 16. And of those 43, no less than 30 are being contested this fall -- the Democrats hold 19 of the contested seats.

Almost two of every three Democratic seats up for election this fall are "in play," defined as leaning toward the other party, being a tossup or leaning Democratic.

Four of those 19 Democratic-held seats are already tilting to the GOP. In each case, the incumbent Democrat left to run for governor, leaving the seat open. The four are California, where a San Francisco district attorney may be too liberal for voters; Arizona, where a controversial immigration law is dominating the fight for an open seat; and Georgia and Oklahoma, where Republicans in the two solidly conservative states are poised to take over.

Another four Democratic-held seats are considered tossups. These include Iowa, where long-serving AG Tom Miller is facing a young, upstart Republican; and New Mexico, Ohio and Kansas, where Democratic incumbents are facing top-notch Republican recruits.

Given the tough electoral map this year, the Democrats have fewer opportunities to go on offense. Only two of the 11 GOP-held AG seats up this year are considered "in play" -- Colorado, where an incumbent Republican AG is facing a spirited challenge, and Florida, where both parties had divisive primaries during an unpredictable election season.

Sources tracking the AG races say that the top issues are often specific to the state as opposed to national in scope, such as enforcement of consumer protection laws or crackdowns on methamphetamines. It remains to be seen whether broader national issues will hold sway in what is shaping up to be a Republican wave year.

These potentially big issues include an effort to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law -- an effort that has already won support from a good chunk of the Republican AGs nationally. Another could be immigration, especially whether states other than Arizona choose to follow its lead in trying to stiffen enforcement powers over illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, in addition to wielding significant influence in their own states -- and collectively as partners in nationally-oriented litigation -- attorneys general can represent a potent force in electoral politics. This year alone, no fewer than 10 sitting AGs ran for governor, and another three ran for U.S. Senate seats. (To be fair, it should be added that no fewer than five have already lost their primary bids.)

For thumbnail sketches of the 30 attorney general seats up for grabs this fall, visit our interactive map.

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