MEMO: State of the State AG Races
October 30, 2020
With 10 state Attorney General races on the ballot this year, the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) broke fundraising records and announced an ambitious plan to retake the majority of state Attorneys General seats with its Incumbency Protection and Back to Blue programs.
DAGA’s fundraising prowess broke records throughout the year and gave the committee the strength to make states competitive. The political environment also has shifted favorably towards Democrats as the national conversation has remained locked on access to affordable health care as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens and the Senate confirmed a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. Democratic AGs have been the primary defenders of the ACA and are at the center of the legal fight against Republican AGs, who seek to repeal health care and strip millions of Americans of their coverage.
Despite Republicans’ seemingly unlimited resources from dark money groups and politically motivating special interests with harmful agendas – as recently exposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a former Democratic AG himself – DAGA has been able to keep pace in part due to record donations from grassroots supporters.
This historic support enabled DAGA to expand the battleground map to include states like Indiana, Montana, and West Virginia. And in the final week, DAGA announced a nearly $1 million boost to campaigns in Indiana and West Virginia where polling showed Democrats within striking range.
This cycle, The Cook Political Report consistently placed both the Indiana and Montana Attorney General races as “Toss Up[s].” In September, Monmouth University released a poll showing Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro – a 2020 battleground – with a commanding 15% lead. That’s a 5% increase from the month prior.
Let us be crystal clear: Republicans failing to pick up a single seat this cycle would be a massive institutional failure for them. The 2020 map leans heavily in their favor. But instead of taking advantage of their opportunity to focus on big battleground seats like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, RAGA has been forced to play defense. Across multiple “safe Republican” seats, RAGA has spent millions in a desperate attempt to provide a safety net for weak incumbents with extreme views who are out of touch with their constituents.
These dynamics are occurring simultaneous with Democratic AG candidates outraising and out campaigning their Republican AG opponents throughout the year. Democratic AG candidates have built momentum and support not seen before in these battleground states.
Ahead of the final weekend, here is what we are focusing on in each of the 10 state Attorney General races.
In the battleground state to watch, incumbent Democratic AG Josh Stein is running a near flawless campaign. In 2016, AG Stein won with over 2.2 million votes, outperforming Hillary Clinton. This year, North Carolina is one of just a few battleground states that is competitive at the Presidential, Senate, and Gubernatorial levels.
Throughout the cycle, AG Stein has held a dominant cash-on-hand and fundraising advantage – at one point having a 50-to-1 cash on hand advantage. Recent reports show Stein outraised his opponent by 10x and had nearly $2 million cash on hand as he went into the final weeks of the race.
Republican AG challenger Jim O’Neill, a district attorney with a well-documented track record of favoring his friends and donors over the safety of the people of his county, has failed to raise the funds necessary to communicate with North Carolina voters. AG Stein has been on air longer and more often, highlighting his career of working with law enforcement to protect communities and his crucial leadership in fighting the opioid crisis, defending access to affordable health care and seeking justice for survivors of abuse. Although North Carolina is a competitive state, DAGA invested early and strategically to make sure AG Stein had the resources he needed to succeed in winning another term. RAGA has not kept pace.
Democratic AG Josh Shapiro has run a solid campaign to seek a second term as Attorney General. AG Shapiro has massive cash on hand and fundraising advantages, giving him the resources to communicate his accomplishments with voters early, often, and consistently.
Public polling has reflected this advantage with a recent Monmouth University poll (rated A+) showing AG Shapiro with a 15% lead over his opponent. Even with polling and a clear eye-test win, RAGA has sunk nearly $1 million into an unknown and ill-prepared candidate with little chance of winning.
In perhaps the biggest open seat fight of the cycle and with the best opportunity for Democrats to flip a seat back to blue, Raph Graybill has run a strong campaign in this purple state that focuses on concrete plans that address kitchen-table concerns for voters.
Republicans nominated an extremist candidate, Austin Knudsen, who is out of touch with Montanans’ values. Knudsen has a long record of attacking access to public lands and affordable health care – the two biggest issues in the race. While Knudsen failed to produce any plans on these two issues, he has chosen instead to speak about defunding the Department of Justice and to hold events with conspiracy theorists and fringe candidates.
Democratic AG nominee Raph Graybill currently serves as Gov. Bullock’s Chief Legal Counsel and has won three high profile lawsuits in the last month that matter to the people of Montana: protecting public lands, reversing harmful USPS changes, and defending the voting rights of Montanans. Though Montana contribution limits are among the lowest in the country ($360), Graybill set a new fundraising record for a candidate seeking the office of Montana Attorney General. Graybill outraised Knudsen in all nine reporting periods with the final report showing Graybill having raised $715,000+ to Knudsen’s $400,000+. An analysis by The Missoulian showed Graybill has twice the grassroots support from Montana donors highlighting real enthusiasm for his campaign. This financial support has allowed Graybill to communicate with Montana voters longer and more frequently than his opponent.
Recent public polling shows this race tied in a state Trump won by 20 points.
Republican intra-party fighting has defined the Indiana AG race and put this on the map for Democrats. The Republican Attorneys General Association backed their preferred candidate, Curtis Hill, right up until he fell short in the third round of voting at the Indiana Republican Convention. Hill, who had his law license suspended by the Indiana state Supreme Court for sexual misconduct, lost the nomination fight to former Congressman Todd Rokita. Hill has refused to endorse Rokita even though both support the ACA repeal lawsuit, a major issue in the state AG race as the COVID-19 crisis continues. RAGA replaced one damaged candidate with another and has invested more than $1 million in this race – a signal that the seat is not safe in a state Trump won by nearly 20% in 2016.
While Republicans remain divided, Democratic AG nominee Jonathan Weinzapfel quickly showed his bipartisan appeal earning the endorsements from both his primary challenger and the Republican statewide elected Superintendent for Public Instruction. The Cook Political Report has rated this race a “Toss Up” in multiple ratings this year, and there are internal polls reflecting the competitive nature of the race.
Weinzapfel raised a record amount for his AG campaign, and DAGA contributed substantially to his campaign, doubling Weinzapfel’s media budget for the last ten days of the campaign and catapulting Weinzapfel’s campaign to a significant, strategic lead over Republican opponent Todd Rokita. Weinzapfel’s campaign is now on air with twice as many points as Rokita’s for the final week – critical since Indiana has not increased early voting access as much as other states around the country. While Weinzapfel finishes strong, DAGA started strong through its first-of-its-kind SMS program, talking to nearly 1 million Hoosiers throughout the summer about the importance of the AG race. This activity, and Weinzapfel’s bipartisan appeal, has pushed this wild card race into a toss-up.
In a race that has grown closer as Election Day draws near, Democratic AG nominee Sam Brown Petsonk is giving unpopular incumbent “Pain Pill Pat” Morrisey a run for his money – and RAGA’s money. Petsonk, a labor lawyer who has advocated on behalf of WV coal miners with black lung and other health care issues, has hit the right note with WV voters. His long record of protecting West Virginians and his deep ties to the state have created an opportunity for a surprise win in this often-overlooked state.
As a result, Republican AG Morrisey and the Republican AG Association have been forced to spend nearly $2 million to save this incumbent who is actively breaking his promise and commitment to term limits; Morrisey pledged to hold office a maximum of two terms. Most recently in 2018, West Virginians rejected Morrisey in his U.S. Senate run, largely based on Morrisey’s participation in the ACA repeal lawsuit that would end the ACA entirely and eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions. West Virginians have benefitted from the ACA, and voters appear to be on the verge of rejecting Morrisey for his efforts to take health insurance away from the people of this state.
A recent poll shows Petsonk within five-points and building momentum when it matters most. DAGA People’s Lawyer Project is running a near half million tv buy in the final week to loosen the ground under Morrisey’s feet and elect a Democrat as Attorney General for the first time in 8 years.
In what has been a closer contest than initially expected, Democratic AG nominee Greg Skordas is putting Utah AG Sean Reyes on notice. After Reyes initially failed to receive enough support in the Republican convention, he was forced into a competitive primary that he barely won. RAGA had to invest more than $300,000 to shore up a weak incumbent.
Polling finds Reyes under 50% support with nearly 25% of Utahns undecided. Reyes has been a part of the Republican AG-led ACA repeal lawsuit, and Skordas has made access to affordable health care central to his campaign. Reyes’ office also has been riddled with controversy and scandal this year, and he doubled down on his unpopular positions during the single AG debate.
RAGA has been forced to spend nearly $100,000 more during the general election to help a floundering campaign that remains off the air and low on funds.
Republican AG Eric Schmitt holds the office of Attorney General through an appointment, facing voters for the first time in this position. Schmitt has taken heat nationally for focusing his time in office on a lawsuit against China for the COVID-19 crisis. This action was viewed locally and nationally as a waste of taxpayer dollars for partisan gain. Schmitt earlier this year sided with the Missouri couple, the McCloskeys, who made national news for threatening peaceful protesters at gunpoint. Schmitt, RAGA, and Missouri Opportunity – a PAC funded almost entirely by a local billionaire with close ties to disgraced former Governor Eric Greitens – have invested more than $3 Million in this race.
Democratic AG nominee Rich Finneran is a well-respected former U.S. Attorney who has made access to affordable health care and political independence the center of his campaign. His plans have earned him the endorsements of the Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis American. Finneran continues to make this race about Schmitt’s ACA repeal lawsuit being heard just one week after Election Day.
Democratic AG Ellen Rosenblum has all the momentum for winning a third term. Running against a non-lawyer challenger, a real race never materialized. AG Rosenblum continues to be a true advocate for the people of her state, and her support by Oregonians was reflected in her receiving nearly twice as many votes in the uncontested primaries earlier this year as her opponent.
Instead of running a professional campaign, Rosenblum’s challenger has focused on amplifying QAnon conspiracy theories, including spreading disinformation that antifa was responsible for the wildfires western states faced this summer.
Democratic AG TJ Donovan is on track for a successful re-election this November. Donovan has focused on bringing real reform to the criminal justice system in VT and defending access to affordable health care. Donovan faces minimal opposition this year and has an extraordinarily bright future.
Democratic AG Bob Ferguson is seeking his third term as Washington Attorney General. Ferguson has a significant cash on hand advantage and recent public polling shows Ferguson set for a successful re-election. Ferguson has received the endorsement of every major Washington State editorial board. As a chess grandmaster, he has made all the right moves in his election campaign and on the political landscape.
Ferguson’s Republican challenger has drifted to the extreme, cozying up to QAnon conspiracy theorists and spreading harmful myths in a last-ditch effort to gain any political support even on the fringe. In fact, at a rally he attended, a QAnon flag was present, and he failed to show any sign of leadership by failing to denounce it. Despite his extremism and lack of credibility, RAGA has chosen to amplify his message and support his candidacy throughout the cycle.