By Dan Levine
(Reuters) – For years, the national political organizations of the Democratic and Republican state attorneys general observed a deal not to target the other party’s incumbents in elections.
That hands-off stance ended this month when Republican GAs voted to abandon the deal and spend money to help topple Democrats in other states, according to the Association of Republican Attorneys General. The decision has not been previously reported.
The move comes as Democratic attorneys general in states across the country have taken leadership roles in opposition to some of Republican President Donald Trump‘s policies. State attorneys general in Washington and Hawaii filed a lawsuit to block Trump’s executive orders restricting travel from some Muslim-majority countries, and the California attorney general has vowed to uphold the state’s environmental standards.
Republican attorneys general who supported the change reasoned that AGs should join other national political campaigns targeting headlines, said two sources familiar with the closed-door process. Additionally, the desire of some to roll back same-sex marriage and the potential for greater corporate contributions played a role in the decision, said the sources, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations.
The so-called ‘incumbency rule’ observed by the party’s fundraising arms of state prosecutors reflected a bit of bipartisanship in the polarized environment of American politics, aimed at promoting cooperation across state lines on matters of common interest, such as consumer protection.
Attorneys General are the top public attorneys in each state, charged with defending state agencies from lawsuits and initiating litigation on their own. AGs took tobacco companies to court in the 1990s and went after mortgage lenders in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In the largest states, an attorney general has hundreds of attorneys and other resources.
Twelve Republican state AGs filed a federal appeals court brief Monday supporting Trump’s revised travel restrictions.
Scott Will, executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association, confirmed the decision to abolish the ownership rule, but declined to discuss the details of the vote.
“The stakes are high for us to put winnable races on the table,” Will said in a statement to Reuters.
The vote was conducted by phone with a count of 15 to 8, the two sources said. Not all Republican GAs participated.
Some of those who supported the change argued that all other national campaign committees are targeting the headlines, so the GAs shouldn’t be different, the sources said.
Opponents expressed fears about threats to bipartisanship, noting that Republican GAs had increased their ranks under the current system, showing there is no need to change the rules now, the sources said.
In 2000, Republicans held 12 of 51 AG state offices, including the District of Columbia, but that number is poised to hit 29, if a nomination made by the Republican governor of New Hampshire is confirmed this month.
One of the first fights after the rule change will likely occur in Virginia, where Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, is seeking re-election in November. In total, 31 general elections are scheduled for 2018. Republicans currently hold 18 of those seats, compared to 13 for Democrats, but some incumbents may not run for re-election.
Karl Racine, attorney general for the District of Columbia and current co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said the Republican group’s decision likely means that Democrats will follow suit.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the goose,” Racine said in an interview.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, will run for election next year in a state that has been a Democratic trend. A well-funded effort to topple her, something the Democratic group AG would not have been involved in under the ownership deal, could spell trouble.
Coffman opposed the change to the incumbent rule, the sources said. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
In laying out the reasons for the rule change, Will pointed to the key role Republican GAs played in opposing some of President Barack Obama‘s policies.
Reversing same-sex marriage was another topic cited during deliberations, the two people familiar with the discussion said. More Republican state GAs could help advance that effort, although the current composition of the US Supreme Court would make any radical reversal unlikely.
In addition, the group discussed a commitment by corporate interests to invest money in overthrowing the Democratic GAs, the two sources said.
Participants in the vote were told the group had received pledges totaling millions of dollars from organizations, including the company that makes the caffeinated drink 5-Hour Energy, sources said. The money depended on the Republican group changing its rules to target incumbent Democrats.
The company that makes 5-hour power, Innovation Ventures, declined to comment. A spokesman for the Republican group AG declined to answer questions about the debate, including the role of the 5-hour promise.
Innovation Ventures has been sued by attorneys general in at least five states for alleged misleading advertising of its energy drink, with mixed results.
Last month, a Washington state judge ruled against the company for nearly $ 4.3 million in one of those cases, brought by Bob Ferguson, the Democratic attorney general whose lawsuit caused a judge to block the first travel restrictions. of Trump. The company has said it will appeal the ruling. In at least two other cases, in Oregon and Indiana, Innovation Ventures prevailed. Oregon has appealed.
The exact dollar amount of the company’s commitment to Republican AGs could not be determined, nor is it clear if it is the only company that has promised a contribution to target Democrats.
The Association of Republican Attorneys General has already created an advantage in fundraising. In 2016, it raised about $ 14.5 million, including donations from conservative businesses and interest groups like the Judicial Crisis Network and Koch Industries, according to tax returns.
Sean Rankin, CEO of the Democratic AG group, said it raised about $ 5.2 million in 2016. The group’s tax returns show a mix of taxpayers including companies, plaintiff law firms and unions.
Click http://tmsnrt.rs/2o6h4ZT to see a graphic about the attorneys general facing voters