Attorneys general in midterm spotlight

Ad spending on attorney general races has reached a record $154 million, as the parties battle over positions that will help determine how some of the country’s most contentious policy struggles unfold in the states.
Arizona Attorney General candidates, Democrat Kris Mayes, left, talks with Republican Abraham Hamadeh, right, prior to a televised debate, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

National battles over abortion rights, crime and elections have increased the focus on attorneys general who play critical roles in determining how some of the country’s most contentious policy struggles unfold in the states.

As many as a dozen of the 30 attorney general races on the ballot Tuesday appear competitive. Many are in states also hosting gubernatorial and Senate races. Ad spending on the races has reached $154 million – the most ever, according to nonpartisan ad-tracking firm AdImpact – with Democrats outspending Republicans by large margins on almost every competitive race.

Democrats say the stakes of this election are particularly high, with several Republicans on the ballot who have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election and attorneys general in several states responsible for determining how state resources are mobilized to enforce abortion laws.

They also leaned into messaging on inflation and crime, saying they have cracked down on price gouging, pursued multi-million-dollar consumer settlements, and have endorsements from law enforcement officials who prosecute violent crimes.

“Democrats are the ones keeping people safe, because we are serious about getting guns and illegal guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” said Geoff Burgan, communications director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

Republicans tied Democrats’ attempts to address inequalities in the criminal justice system to increases in violent crime. They also pointed to the record of Republican attorneys general in litigating key elements of the Biden administration’s agenda, including vaccine mandates, immigration and climate policy.

“Democrat attorneys general have failed on public safety and the economy, the issues most important to voters, and are beholden to Planned Parenthood so it’s not surprising that they’ve tried to define AG races on abortion,” Republican Attorneys General Association spokesman Johnny Koremenos said.

Democrats, who flipped four attorney general offices when the same 30 were up in 2018, have more turf to defend. They hold seven of the seats rated competitively by the UVA Center for Politics, compared to five held by Republicans.

They are also working against the same national trends that have advantaged Republicans in the leadup to the midterms, as inflation and crime – issues that tend to favor the GOP – have overtaken the abortion and democracy concerns that gave Democrats a boost over the summer.

Attorneys general can serve as a check on the president’s ability to enact his agenda through executive orders – a tool President Biden may use more if Republicans take over one or both branches of Congress. They also determine their state’s civil and criminal enforcement priorities and ensure free and fair elections.

The office can also serve as a stepping stone to higher office. Still, voters tend to have less information about attorney general elections, making them more likely to be decided along party lines.

Here are the five key races to watch:

Arizona: Outside groups affiliated with both parties have poured millions into the neck-and-neck open-seat contest between former state corporation commissioner Kris Mayes (D) and former Army Reserve intelligence officer Abraham Hamadeh (R). Current Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) ran for the U.S. Senate.

Hamadeh, who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, claims that the 2020 election was rigged and has promised to prosecute election fraud, a key issue considering the broad powers the state grants to the attorney general in overseeing presidential elections.

Mayes, a former Republican, has promised not to prosecute doctors who provide abortions and says the state’s constitution, which insures a right to privacy, makes its 15-week abortion ban illegal. Democrats claim that the race is central to protecting American democracy, with election deniers also running in close races for governor, secretary of state and the U.S. Senate.

Michigan: Incumbent Dana Nessel (D), has been attacking Trump-endorsed challenger Matt DePerno (R), for his comments that he would enforce a 1931 ban on abortion currently tied up in court, and that the Plan B pill should be banned for use to prevent pregnancy after conception.

DePerno is under criminal investigation for his work to undermine the results of the 2020 election. Nessel’s office launched the investigation, though it is now being led by a special prosecutor. DePerno claims the investigation is politically motivated.

Polls suggest a close race, with Gov. Gretchen Whittmer (D) also in a competitive re-election bid and a ballot referendum that would guarantee the right to an abortion potentially driving turnout.

Minnesota: Incumbent Keith Ellison (D), is facing a challenge from corporate lawyer Jim Schultz (R), who is attempting to tap into voter anxiety about violent crime after the Minneapolis area became the locus of racial justice protests surrounding the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Ellison, a progressive, has attempted to keep the focus on abortion rights, attacking Schultz for his former position on the board of directors of a group that spread misinformation about abortion.

A Republican hasn’t won statewide office in Minnesota since 2006, but polls show a tight race.

Nevada: Both parties are keeping a close eye on incumbent Aaron Ford’s (D) race against attorney Sigal Chattah, who rose to prominence for suing the state over COVID restrictions and who has repeatedly said she thinks the 2020 election was stolen. Ford first won the seat by a razor-thin margin in 2018 and the outcome of this race could be influenced by fiercely competitive U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races that are attracting national attention.

Polls show a tight contest. Chattah has made Ford’s support for criminal justice reforms central to her campaign, but she has faced backlash for her profanity-laced statements, including an assertion that Ford, who is Black, “should be hanging from a f–king crane.” Ford has attacked Chattah for her opposition to abortion rights. The procedure is legal up to 24 weeks in Nevada.

Wisconsin: Incumbent Josh Kaul (D) is a top target for Republicans, who want to break the triplex control of state government that Democrats have held since 2018. Kaul was elected that year by a close margin that tracked with Gov. Tony Evers (D), who is also in a competitive re-election bid, as is U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R). Kaul is facing Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney (R).

The winner will play a central role in determining whether the state enforces an 1849 law that bans all abortions except to save the life of the mother. Kaul has filed a lawsuit to overturn it. Toney says he will enforce the law and ask the legislature to allow adjoining counties to bring cases if a local district attorney won’t prosecute.

Toney clearly states that Biden won the 2020 election and does not think there was widespread voter fraud.

Here are a few other races worth keeping an eye on:

Colorado: Republicans think that all of Colorado’s statewide elected officials could be vulnerable in a red wave. But Democratic incumbent Phil Weiser has a substantial fundraising lead over District Attorney John Kellner, R, who trails in recent polls. Kellner says he would defend the state’s laws, which guarantees abortion rights and is attacking Weiser as soft on crime. Weiser, who clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, has made his support for abortion rights central to his campaign and points to his record suing opioid drugmakers and spearheading efforts to recruit and retain law enforcement officers.

Georgia: Incumbent Chris Carr (D) and state Sen. Jen Jordan (R) have both posted strong fundraising reports. Jordan has pegged her race to opposition to the state’s ban on abortion after six weeks, and said she would support challengers who are suing to overturn the law on constitutional grounds. But Carr’s potential appeal to independents was boosted after he dispatched a Trump-backed primary challenger who campaigned on baseless allegations of abortion fraud, and polls show him in the lead.

Idaho: The race attracted buzz after Raul Labrador (R), a former congressman, gubernatorial candidate and state party chair, unseated 20-year incumbent Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in a May primary. Labrador has since divided the state GOP, with several prominent Republicans endorsing attorney Tom Arkoosh (D). But a win for Arkoosh would go against the partisan lean of a state Trump won by almost 31 points in 2020.

Iowa: Republicans are hoping partisan politics in the state, which trended their way in recent cycles, could fuel a defeat for longtime incumbent Tom Miller, the only Democrat in statewide elected office. But polls show him with a comfortable lead over Guthrie County Attorney Brenna Bird, who lost a challenge to Miller in 2010. Bird previously served as a top aide to former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and former Rep. Steve King (R).

Kansas: Democrats are targeting seats in Kansas, Georgia and Texas. Their chances are best in Kansas, where recent polling shows former police officer and prosecutor Chris Mann (D) with a slight lead over former Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) in the race to replace Derek Schmidt (R), who is running for governor.

Kobach’s bids for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020 ended in stinging defeats. Kobach’s plan to move toward a state abortion ban also would reverse momentum in the state, where voters this summer decisively rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would clear the way for abortion restrictions.

New Mexico: Republicans hope their messaging on violent crime in New Mexico in races up and down the ballot propels attorney Jerry Gay (R) in his race against Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez (D). They’re running to replace term-limited incumbent Hector Balderas (D). Recent polls show Torrez in the lead.

Texas: Democrats hope that incumbent Ken Paxton’s (R) long-standing legal troubles will make him vulnerable, and they have spent millions of dollars in ads supporting former ACLU attorney Rochelle Garza (D). But Garza has struggled with lackluster fundraising, low name recognition and statewide momentum favoring Republicans and recent polls show Paxton with a lead.