Republicans hopeful about boosting number of AGs

Chris Rizo Oct. 15, 2008, 4:21am

Michael Gibbons (R-Mo.)

Darrell McGraw (D-W.Va.)

Tim Fox (R-Mont.)

Richard Cordray (D-Ohio)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Legal Newsline)-Despite Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's lead in the national polls and expectations that Republicans will lose seats in Congress, strategists say chances are good for GOP candidates for state attorneys general.

In all, 11 states are holding elections for attorneys general on Nov. 4. Of those contests, the Republican State Leadership Committee considers about half of them winnable or at least competitive for Republican candidates, a spokeswoman told Legal Newsline.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which aims to get GOP candidates elected to statewide offices, hopes to increase the number of Republican attorneys general from the current 19.

Democrats lead with 31 attorneys general. Of AGs who are elected rather than appointed, there are 27 Democrats and 16 Republicans.

The RSLC sees Utah, Washington, Pennsylvania and Indiana as safe AG races for Republicans, said Carrie Cantrell, RSLC's spokeswoman and director of policy.

In tighter races, as in Ohio and West Virginia, for instance, the challenge for Republican candidates is to differentiate themselves from Democratic candidates, she said in a telephone interview from her office in Alexandria, Va.

Missouri, this year, is home to one of the most competitive AG races, Cantrell said.

In the Show Me State, Republican state Sen. Michael Gibbons and Democratic Sen. Chris Koster are vying to succeed Attorney General Jay Nixon, the Democratic nominee for governor.

"We have been a big supporter of Michael Gibbons' campaign," Cantrell said, noting that the RSLC gave his campaign $1.1 million last month. On the flip side, she said Koster has received backing from labor unions and trial lawyers, traditional Democratic campaign supporters.

A poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling shows Koster leading Gibbons by five points, 46 percent to 41 percent.

In Montana, Republican Tim Fox and Democrat Steve Bullock are in a hard-fought race to succeed Democratic Attorney General Mike McGrath, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.

"We have Fox running an outstanding race out there," Cantrell said. "It should be a traditional Republican state, and we feel very good about his candidacy."

She said Republicans' chances of taking back the AG's offices in Missouri and Montana are boosted by the fact that the seat is open.

"It's extremely difficult to unseat an incumbent attorney general, so it helps to have an open seat," she said.

However, West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw, a Democrat who is seeking a fifth term, is especially vulnerable this year, Cantrell said.

McGraw, who has won his last two re-election bids narrowly, has drawn criticism from business groups and Dan Greear, his Republican challenger, for using proceeds from consumer protection settlements without consulting state lawmakers.

McGraw has been hammered in the local media for relying heavily on outside counsel to litigate large consumer protection cases, such as the one in which Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $10 million to settle claims it failed to disclose the harmful effects of its painkiller OxyContin.

Critics say McGraw has awarded lucrative contingency contracts to his campaign supporters.

"The people of West Virginia are tired of seeing General McGraw run his office as a special interest office and not giving back money to the people of West Virginia who were harmed and instead using settlement money at his own whim," she said.

The Orion Strategies/West Virginia Wesleyan poll conducted last month indicated McGraw had a seven-point lead.

As for what effect, if any, an Obama win would have on Republicans' chances to win more AG seats, Cantrell said there could be a slight trickle-down effect.

"But down-ticket ballot races are really localized...The people who run for state office are closer to their people than a national candidate, who may come into their state a couple of times," she said. "We're going to continue to do what we can to get Republicans elected on Nov. 4."

Cantrell said voters need to know there is a "fundamental difference" in legal philosophy between Republican and Democratic attorneys general.

"Republican attorneys general understand that they are to apply the law, not to create law or to be activist attorneys general to go out there and try to grab headlines," she told Legal Newsline.

Among Democrats who have acted recklessly as their states' chief legal officer by trying to advance their own cause, she said, are former Attorneys General Eliot Spitzer of New York, who resigned as governor after revelations he was involved with a prostitution ring, and Marc Dann of Ohio, who resigned in mid-May amid a sexual harassment scandal.

Vying to complete the two years left on Dann's term are state Treasurer Richard Cordray, a Democrat, and Republican former U.S. Attorney Mike Crites.

According to a poll conducted late last month, Cordray leads Crites by eight points, and has a 30:1 fundraising advantage, with $ 2.47 million in the bank, compared to Crites' $80,282 according to campaign finance reports filed earlier this month.

For Democrats, they see AG races in North Carolina, Vermont and West Virginia as safe. In Oregon, John Kroger, the Democratic candidate vying to replace retiring Democratic Attorney General Hardy Myers, doesn't even have a Republican opponent.

Joe Eyer, senior political adviser to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, told Legal Newsline last month that they have strong field of candidates and incumbents.

"Democratic candidates and incumbents are very well positioned this year. DAGA is supporting strong new candidates in seven key states, including Indiana, Montana and Missouri," Eyer said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at

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