Attorney General Races: Dems Still Playing Defense

With oral arguments over challenges to the Affordable Care Act occupying the Supreme Court's attention this week, its time to look again at this year's contests for state attorneys general.
by | March 28, 2012
 

With oral arguments over challenges to President Barack Obama's health-care law occupying the Supreme Court's attention this week, I thought it was worth looking again at the contests for state attorneys general this year.

The legal fight over the health care law shows how important AG races can be. Not only are such staunchly Republican states as South Carolina, Alabama, Alaska and Idaho among the 27 suing to stop the law, but a range of swing states and even Democratic-leaning states have joined as well -- Virginia, Michigan, Florida, Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Washington, Nevada, Wisconsin, Ohio and Maine. In some cases, such as Maine and Ohio, the election results produced a shift in AGs (and in some cases governors) that likely impacted the decision on whether to sue.

So how do the 2012 AG contests look? Since my last look six months ago, several contests have experienced significant upheavals.

New Republican candidates have emerged in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Missouri, while Democrats have gotten a break in North Carolina and Oregon, two states where no Republican candidate has materialized (even though the Democratic incumbent in Oregon suddenly decided not to seek a new term). The biggest shake-up has occurred in the most unexpected of places -- Vermont, where longtime Democratic incumbent Bill Sorrell now has both a top-tier primary challenger and, potentially, a credible Republican rival, too.

And these developments don't count the three races that were decided in November -- Louisiana, which went Republican (it had been rated safe Republican), and Kentucky and Mississippi, both of which went Democratic (they had been rated lean Democratic and likely Democratic, respectively).

Despite the changes, our ratings haven't shifted dramatically -- the Democrats are still, on balance, playing defense.

Of the 10 contests for 2012, I'm counting six as "competitive," meaning they're rated as tossup, lean Republican or lean Democratic. Of those six competitive races, four are currently held by Democrats.

Currently, the national balance for AG offices is exactly even: 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans, down from a 32-18 Democratic lead prior to the 2010 election. The rapid erosion of Democratic control of state AG offices is an ominous development for the party, since it robs the party of a meaty policy office and a key job for building an in-state farm team for higher office.

The following four contests continue to be rated tossups -- Democratic-held Montana and West Virginia, and Republican-held Washington state and Pennsylvania. The other two competitive contests are in Missouri (rated lean Democratic, no change from the last rating) and Vermont (which shifts from safe Democratic to lean Democratic).

The remaining four contests are secure for the incumbent party -- Utah and Indiana for the Republicans, and North Carolina and Oregon for the Democrats.

Here are thumbnail sketches of the 2012 AG races:

Safe Republican

Utah (R-held; no change in rating): John Swallow, the deputy to current AG Republican Mark Shurtleff, remains the frontrunner in this solidly Republican state. (The seat is poised to come open now that Shurtleff has announced that he won't seek a fourth term in 2012.) Swallow will have Republican competition from Sean Reyes, a private-sector litigator. The state Democratic Party does have a credentialed candidate: Weber County Attorney Dee Smith. Smith is about as strong an AG candidate as state Democrats could hope for, but he's also hedging his bets, making it a "non-negotiable" demand of the state party officials who recruited him that he'll be able to keep his day job and only campaign at night, during weekends and on his vacation time -- not the sign of someone with high expectations of winning. Meanwhile, frequent candidate W. Andrew McCullough has filed as a libertarian. Despite Smith's and McCullough's entry into the race, it's hard to imagine ruby-red Utah diverting away from a Republican for AG, especially in a presidential-election year.

Indiana (R-held; no change in rating): First-term Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller continues to have smooth sailing. He's also getting a bounce in this GOP-leaning state for his efforts to challenge President Barack Obama's health-care law. A big problem for the Democrats is the likelihood that they won't even have a nominee until the state party convention in June. Safe Republican.

Tossup

Montana (D-held; no change in rating): With Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock seeking the governorship, Montana's AG race remains wide open, with two Democrats (former state Sen. Jesse Laslovich, who's now chief legal counsel in the state auditor's office, and former prosecutor Pam Bucy) and two Republicans (state Sen. Jim Shockley and private-sector attorney Tim Fox, who gave Bullock a competitive race in 2008) vying for the office. Republicans are high on Fox, and observers in both parties see him as a slight frontrunner for the nomination. Like other Republican attorney general candidates elsewhere, Fox is touting his opposition to the Obama health care law. The Democratic contenders, for their part, are considered evenly matched. When the dust settles in June, the two nominees should start out roughly even, with a large number of undecided voters. This contest remains a tossup.

Washington state (R-held, no change in rating): Two King County councilmembers -- Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson - are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican Rob McKenna, who is seeking the governorship. Polling shows the race close -- a February survey by Public Policy Polling (PPP) showed Dunn with 34 percent, Ferguson with 32 percent and 34 percent undecided. An earlier poll, by SurveyUSA/KING 5 TV had Ferguson ahead, 39 percent - 34 percent. Being a Democrat in a presidential year should be a significant plus for Ferguson, but Dunn has some advantages as well -- name recognition (his mother was long-serving U.S. representative Jennifer Dunn), history (three of the last four AGs have been Republican), and an unusually strong GOP top of the ticket (The February PPP poll said that McKenna and his opponent were tied). Dunn joined Ferguson in backing same-sex marriage -- notable for a Republican, and a stance that should play well in a moderate-to-liberal state. The high levels of undecided voters leaves us with little choice - this one stays in the tossup category.

West Virginia (D-held; no change in rating): After a slow start to this race, five-term incumbent Darrell McGraw, a populist and a magnet for business leaders' opposition (and money), now has a Republican opponent -- Patrick Morrisey, a little-known lawyer living in the state's eastern panhandle who garnered some notice for challenging McGraw to debates in each of the state's 55 counties. (Don't hold your breath.) Republicans say that if Morrisey can get enough money to be competitive, he'll have a shot. West Virginia is expected to go hard for the Republican presidential nominee, which could be a drag on McGraw's chances. Still, McGraw's years of experience cautions against underestimating him. Until the race begins to jell, we'll call it a tossup.

Pennsylvania (R-held; no change in rating): The personnel has changed a bit, but the Pennsylvania AG contest remains highly competitive -- and still the best Democratic pickup opportunity for an AG seat this cycle. The Republicans have settled on Cumberland County DA David Freed, an elected prosecutor for the past seven years and the son-in-law of the state's first elected attorney general, Leroy Zimmerman. With Republican former AG Tom Corbett now serving as governor, and with the AG race one of the top contests on the fall ballot (and in Republican hands since 1980), electing Freed should be a high priority. The Democratic field includes two candidates -- former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran who was defeated for reelection in the GOP sweep of 2010, and Kathleen Kane, a former assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County. Kane is spending family money, but is seen as less charismatic than Murphy, who had a high media profile during his short congressional stint. A wild card is a third-party bid by former U.S. Rep. and state auditor general Don Bailey. Pennsylvania is sure to be a major battleground in the fall; the AG race should be no different. Tossup.

Lean Democratic

Missouri (D-held; no change in rating): The Republican field has finally coalesced against first-term Attorney General Chris Koster, a moderate Democrat (and former Republican). The better-known of the two is Ed Martin, who served as chief of staff to former one-term Republican Gov. Matt Blunt. But Martin, who later ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat, had a stormy tenure as Blunt's top aide, ultimately resigning after a controversy over deleted e-mails in the governor's administration. The other Republican seeking the AG spot is Adam Warren, a young elected prosecutor in rural Livingston County who also spent time in the Missouri Army National Guard Judge Advocate General corps. Opposition to Obama in general and the health care in particular could aid the eventual Republican nominee. But in general, Koster's middle-of-the-road approach seems to be popular, and melds well with that of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who seems headed to a second term this fall despite the Show Me State's continued Republican leanings. This race stays in the lean Democratic category.

Vermont (D-held; shifts from Safe Democratic): A few months ago, it seemed as if William Sorrell was on a glide path to reelection as AG, a post he's held since being appointed in 1997 by then-Gov. Howard Dean. But now the dam has broken. Democrat T.J. Donovan, the county prosecutor for Chittenden County, which includes the state's largest city, Burlington, announced a primary challenge. Donovan is pushing the theme of change; he's in his thirties, while Sorrell is in his sixties. Subsequently, House Speaker Shap Smith, another Democrat, has begun to consider running in the primary. And now, a leading Republican state senator who's also respected by Democrats, Vincent Illuzzi, is considering a bid, possibly as an Independent. Were Vermont not such a strongly Democratic state in a presidential election year, this contest is sufficiently wide open to rate as a tossup. But those factors suggest a rating of lean Democratic instead, at least until the race shakes out further.

Safe Democratic

North Carolina (D-held; shifts from likely Democratic): With the failure of the state GOP to file a candidate for this race, the contest moves one additional notch to safe Democratic. Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has won three straight terms in a southern state, but he could have been vulnerable due to problems uncovered at the state crime lab, which is under his jurisdiction. But Cooper still enjoys high favorability ratings, so it would have taken a lot of money to topple him. Now he won't have to worry about it.

Oregon (D-held; no change in rating): Oregon remains safe Democratic despite the bombshell decision by first-term Democratic AG John Kroger to forgo a second term due to unspecified health reasons. The only candidates who filed by the March deadline are both Democrats, so it's safe to assume the position will remain in Democratic hands. (Third parties can file later, but they aren't expected to be competitive at this point.) The two Democrats sparring in the May 15 primary are Dwight Holton, a former interim U.S. attorney, and Ellen Rosenblum, a former federal prosecutor, trial court and state Court of Appeals judge. Observers see little ideological difference, so the race may turn more on personal history. Holton is connected to two former Virginia governors: He is the the son of A. Linwood Holton and brother-in-law of former Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine. Meanwhile, Rosenblum would be the first woman in Oregon history to win the post. The primary contest seems wide open, even if the general election is not.

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