Despite a calamitous 2010 election that wiped out Democratic ranks at the state level, the party has a healthy bench of state attorneys general. Though Republicans hold 30 governor's mansions, fully half of the attorneys general in the country are Democrats, a healthy reserve in a position that's often a stepping stone to other major statewide elected offices. The usual cliche is that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president, but it's also true that many AGs see themselves as future governors or U.S. senators.
But a bench of potential candidates is only as good as its output, and Democrats' AG bench has been next to useless at producing higher office-holders over the past few years. In a number of states where the party is looking for new governors, the attorney general has declined to step up -- or, in one case, dramatically flamed out -- leaving Democrats to hunt for less credible challengers.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel was initially viewed as Democrats' best hope for holding the state's top office after Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is termed out in 2014. But McDaniel, who won reelection as AG with over 70 percent of the vote in 2010, removed himself from the race in January after admitting to an affair.
No other attorneys general have fallen as dramatically as McDaniel, but they still aren't helping Democrats win more governorships. Few local observers give New Mexico Attorney General Gary King much of a chance at defeating Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, and numerous other Democrats have expressed interest in the race. (King also lost a gubernatorial primary in 1998.) Term-limited Nevada AG Catherine Cortez Masto is among Democrats' strongest options to take on popular GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, but she looks unlikely to run for anything in 2014. Cortez Masto won her 2010 race by a wider margin than Sandoval won the governorship, and she also passed up the chance to run for Senate in 2012, deferring to former Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who lost very narrowly despite facing a damaging ethics inquiry.
In Illinois, many state Democrats are on the hunt for an alternative to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, whose approval rating stood at 33 percent in February. But AG Lisa Madigan, who was heavily courted by groups like EMILY's List and proved very popular even in potential Democratic opponent Bill Daley's internal polling, eventually decided not to run, saying that serving as governor while her father was state House speaker wouldn't serve Illinois's interests.
And in Pennsylvania, the attorney general's office may very well host the state's most popular Democrat, but Kathleen Kane is staying in place for now, having just won her first term in 2012 -- though she did it in style, outperforming even name-brand Democratic Sen. Bob Casey atop Pennsylvania's statewide ticket. Meanwhile, a pack of lesser-known Democrats is squabbling over the right to take on embattled Republican Gov. Tom Corbett next year.
Democrats' troubles transforming attorneys general into higher office-holders extends to last year, too. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock successfully stepped into his current role from the state AG's office, but veteran North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper declined to try and defend the open Democratic seat there despite his popularity and long electoral record. Cooper won a fourth term unopposed, while Republican Gov. Pat McCrory won the state's top office by more than 11 percentage points.
It's not all bad news for Democratic AGs. The potentially strong candidates not running for higher office this year could always be future gubernatorial or Senate nominees -- Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., won her seat 12 years after last serving as North Dakota's AG (and also losing a governor's race). And Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of the Bay State's most popular politicians, is reportedly considering a run for the open governorship in 2014. But Coakley is also an example on the other side of the coin, having lost the 2009 special election to replace late Sen. Ted Kennedy in the halls of Congress. The field of state attorneys general is often the first stop for parties looking to recruit Senate and gubernatorial candidates, but that field has been less than fruitful for Democrats of late.