Sunday, October 16, 2016

Election is Nine-Tenths of the Law: 2016 Attorney General Race Ratings

You know NRCC and DCCC and DSCC and NRSC; DGA and RGA and RSLC and DLCC. But do you recall the least famous party committees of all? The Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) and Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) are far less glamorous than their higher-office counterparts, but they still funnel millions of dollars in both hard and soft campaign cash into attorney-general elections every cycle. Their donors? People and corporations savvy to the powerful role of state attorneys general.

As the chief legal authority in each state, attorneys general can decide whom to prosecute, what to sue over, even which laws to enforce. Questions swirled around Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi for choosing not to investigate Trump University after Donald Trump donated to her campaign. Red-state attorneys general have banded together to challenge the Affordable Care Act and federal environmental regulations. In West Virginia, as in many other states, the attorney general sets the tone for drug prosecutions and the state's fight against opioid addiction—which is why it caused controversy when pharmaceutical companies that provide those drugs, and are even the subject of state litigation, donated thousands to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's re-election campaign.

That's just one of the pieces of intrigue in this year's attorney-general races. Pennsylvania will elect its fifth attorney general in four years after a vendetta against a political enemy brought down a rising Democratic star. Missouri and North Carolina will fill open seats left behind by two alums of their AG's offices—Chris Koster and Roy Cooper—who are good bets to become governor. More so even than lieutenant governor, the job is a firm stepping stone to higher office.

Every state has an attorney general, but only 43 elect them. Among these states, Republicans enjoy a 23–20 advantage in top cops (it's 27–22 overall, with one nonpartisan AG). This year, 10 of the seats are up for election across the country, including six Democratic-held seats and four Republican-held ones. The GOP is poised to add to its numbers slightly, with most of the competitive races on Democratic turf and an RAGA with far more cash to burn than the DAGA. A preponderance of open seats—four out of five of which are currently Democratic—in purple and red states may help to sink progressives.

Below are my race ratings for attorney general; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • Indiana: Likely Republican. Either way, history's going to be made in Indiana. If Democrat Lorenzo Arredondo wins, he'll be the first Latino elected Indiana attorney general. If Republican Curtis Hill wins, he'll be the first African American man elected Indiana attorney general. Both party committees have invested in their man, though the $600,000 Hill received from the RAGA was far more than the $31,000 the DAGA gave Arredondo, a decent sign of how the race is shaping up. Arredondo—the less famous of the two Mexican-American judges from Indiana—has spent a lot of time engaging Latino voters, a curious strategy in the 6.7% Latino state. It's hard to see him running ahead of any of the top-of-the-ticket Democrats: a well-liked governor hopeful, a Senate legend who is the son of another Senate legend, and a presidential candidate running against the imploding Trump train.
  • Missouri: Leans Republican. This is how the parties behave when a seat is truly competitive: the RAGA has dumped $3.1 million into the campaign coffers of law professor Josh Hawley, while the DAGA has invested $500,000 in Teresa Hensley. The 36-year-old Hawley is a favorite of movement conservatives and was propped up by anti-labor donor David Humphreys during a bitter GOP primary; expect him to be groomed for higher office if he wins. With his financial advantage, Hawley has been able to air twice as many television ads as Hensley, and he's running a healthy nine points ahead of Eric Greitens in the race's only poll. If the candidates controlled their own destiny, you'd have to give Hawley the edge, but this one is going to come down to how fiesty the Missouri electorate is feeling on November 8. Until we know that, we're gonna keep hemming and hawing over Hensley and Hawley.
  • Montana: Solid Republican. Attorney General Tim Fox was many Republicans' first choice to run for governor this year, but he demurred and instead is seeking re-election. Democrats, on the other hand, had to cajole their candidate, former State Senator Larry Jent, into the race at the last minute, as no one else was interested in challenging the broadly popular incumbent. With less than $30,000 in the bank as of the beginning of October, it's clear that Jent's heart just isn't in it.
  • North Carolina: Tossup. No state has more tossup races than North Carolina—first lieutenant governor, and now the open attorney general's seat. Republican State Senator Buck Newton is trying to break quite a streak: the GOP hasn't won an election for North Carolina AG in over 100 years. He's getting ample help from the RAGA, which has made its largest single-race ad buy ever in North Carolina this year: $3.8 million. The ads started last week and immediately went negative on Democrat Josh Stein, a former state senator, for relying on his rich family and being an "extreme Harvard radical." However, Stein has an overflowing warchest of his own, and so far he's outspending the GOP on TV, emphasizing Newton's unabashed support for HB 2. A September PPP poll showed Stein in a stronger position than other downballot Democrats, but the race was still statistically tied and had lots of undecideds.
  • Oregon: Solid Democratic. This one's a laugher. Republican Daniel Crowe is a political novice and told reporters "he falls outside the mainstream Republican ideology, though he declined to identify which of his beliefs diverge." Fortunately/unfortunately, we'll never know, as incumbent Democrat Ellen Rosenblum has 45 times as much cash on hand as Crowe in this bright-blue state.
  • Pennsylvania: Tossup. TFW your party's rising star, the first female attorney general of Pennsylvania, gets convicted on felony perjury charges and resigns from office in disgrace. After the epic fall of Kathleen Kane, Republicans were convinced they could take back the Pennsylvania attorney general's office that they had historically dominated. Republican State Senator John Rafferty has tied Democrat Josh Shapiro to the scandals of Kane and other Democratic officeholders, but the attack isn't as potent as it could have been; neither Kane nor her caretaker successor was ever running in this race, and Shapiro, a Montgomery County commissioner, represents a clean break for the party. Shapiro has fired back at Rafferty's vote in the State Senate to cut funding to fight the opioid epidemic, a much more personal hit. Ultimately, if Trump drags down Pennsylvania Republicans as much as he's threatening to, it will be hard for Rafferty to swim against the tide.
  • Utah: Solid Republican. Utah is two years ahead of where Pennsylvania is: in 2013, Utah Attorney General John Swallow resigned amid scandal, and Utah held a briefly exciting special election. This year notwithstanding, Utah is still a deep-red state, and Republican Sean Reyes won that race easily—and he has enjoyed a quiet two years in office thus far. He faces only token third-party opposition after Democrat Jon Harper dropped out of the race for health reasons.
  • Vermont: Likely Democratic. Long-serving attorney general Bill Sorrell is calling it quits this year, leaving the office open for the first time since 1982. The state's brazen ticket-splitting makes it hard to peg downballot races, especially this year, when its electorate will be torn between strongly Democratic in the presidential race and Republican-friendly in the tossup gubernatorial contest. For lieutenant governor, I split the difference at Leans Democratic, but the GOP's candidate is much stronger for LG than for AG. Republican Deborah Bucknam—a private citizen, not a political veteran—has raised only $58,624 in the latter race. By contrast, Chittenden County state's attorney T.J. Donovan, her Democratic opponent, has raked in $405,171.
  • Washington: Solid Democratic. Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson lucked out and did not draw any Republican opposition in his bid for a second term. Instead, Libertarian Josh Trumbull advanced with him in the top-two primary to November's election, but Trumbull will be hard-pressed to improve upon the 27% he garnered in the primary. Ferguson is safe as he bides his time for the next open gubernatorial election.
  • West Virginia: Leans Republican. Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey edged out a two-point win in 2012, foreshadowing West Virginia's 2014 turn to red from head to toe. The state is only going to move farther right, and Morrisey should have an advantage as the incumbent. But Democratic Delegate Doug Reynolds has run a good race, assailing Morrisey as a carpetbagger in this notoriously tight-knit state. Through the end of September, Reynolds had spent $1.5 million and appeared to have caught Morrisey (who had spent only $328,594) with his pants down: the Democrat's campaign released an internal poll showing Morrisey ahead just 37% to 36%. However, the poll admitted that Reynolds was running 10 points behind Democratic candidate for governor Jim Justice, and the West Virginia Republican Party's own poll around the same time awarded Morrisey, at 46% to Reynolds's 38%, a lot more of the undecided vote. The late-summer ad blitz also left Reynolds with just $117,961 in the bank, and Republicans have outaired him decisively on broadcast TV in October. The RAGA is in the midst of dropping $3.5 million into the race, so while we've got to hand Reynolds a trophy for effort, it doesn't look like he's going to win anything else.

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