Democrats could have tough electoral road ahead

Chris Rizo Jan. 20, 2010, 1:00am

Ed Murnane

Barbara O'Connor

Thomas Del Beccaro

Bob Tiernan

Doug Gansler (D-Md.)

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-In an epic political upset Tuesday night, a Republican won the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by liberal icon Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts - something that political observers told Legal Newsline could signal danger for Democrats nationally.

While state Sen. Scott Brown's victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley will likely become a rallying call for Republicans and a fundraising pitch for the GOP, some observers say it might be too soon to tell if Tuesday's upset is a sign of elections to come.

Of keen interest to many tort reform proponents and members of the business community are the 30 races this year for state attorneys general. Among incumbent attorneys general, at least 17 are running this year for other office, including governor and U.S. senator.

Ed Murnane, chairman of the American Tort Reform Association, told Legal Newsline that Brown's victory in the left-leaning Bay State could signal a bright electoral future for Republicans, who typically support the sort of legal reforms sought by his organization.

"I think it could be very encouraging, but it's too early to jump to any conclusions," said Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League. "If the Massachusetts election is an indication that there will be a Republican surge this year, it will be very good for tort reform."

Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State University, said races for attorney general around the country will not likely be affected by the Massachusetts outcome.

Asked what Tuesday's election outcome means specifically, if anything, for Democratic AG candidates, O'Connor said, "Probably not much," nothing that there are "lots of intervening variables" for candidates.

Cathy Shaw, a leading Democratic strategist in Oregon and author of the definitive university text on running local political campaigns, said she doubts that Brown's come-from-behind win in Massachusetts says much about what to expect in attorney general races around the country.

"I think we need to be circumspect about how much we read into this ... people want different things from an attorney general than they want from a U.S. senator," Shaw told LNL. "A senator should be able to communicate believably with constituents; an AG looks at life in more black and white terms. Each is a different animal. Just because a candidate did well in an election as the state's prosecutor does not translate to U.S. Senate material. The election was in trouble from the beginning because of this simple mistake."

GOP partisans, however, have a much more optimistic view of the 2010 election cycle.

Thomas Del Beccaro, vice chairman of the California Republican Party, said Democrats should "definitely" be concerned going into the election season in the wake of Tuesday's surprise GOP showing and President Barack Obama's lackluster approval numbers.

A CBS News poll conducted this month found that 46 percent said they approve of how Obama is doing his job, while 41 percent said they disapprove of the Democratic president's performance.

Historically, when the president's approval rating is below 50 percent, the president's party loses 40 seats in the House, Del Beccaro said. Given the current slim majority Democrats have, that would be enough to flip the House.

"Vulnerable seats in California could include all of the statewide seats, including a law and order seat, like attorney general," he told Legal Newsline.

The political implications of Brown's unexpected win could prove profound. Not only could Obama's No. 1 domestic policy priority -- health care reform -- die on the vine, Democrats will lose their 60-seat Senate filibuster-proof supermajority once Brown is seated.

Noteworthy is the fact that no Republican has won a U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts since 1972, and Democrats control the governor's office, both houses of the state Legislature and comprise the state's entire congressional delegation.

"What Senator Brown's campaign has done to reach out to Independent voters and reenergize Republicans and conservatives in Massachusetts and across the country is incredible," said Oregon Republican Party Chairman Bob Tiernan.

In August, speaking to Legal Newsline, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said it is not widely expected that Democrats will gain more AG seats this year.

"We've had two huge Democratic cycles in a row -- in 2008 and 2006," Gansler said. "It is unrealistic to think that it's going to continue in perpetuity."

States holding AG elections this year are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Currently, there are 31 Democratic state attorneys general and 19 Republican AGs. Of the races next year, 11 involve states with incumbent Republican AGs and 19 of them involve states with Democratic AGs.

From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at

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