The office of state attorney general usually comes with its political perks, including a semblance of bipartisanship, crime-fighting credibility, and statewide name ID. But the last four years have shown it hardly renders a résumé foolproof.
Since 2015, no current or former attorney general has been elected to federal or gubernatorial office, and just four have been elected to those offices since 2012, according to data provided by Ballotpedia.
The most recent example is in North Dakota, where 15-year Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was defeated earlier this month in the Republican gubernatorial primary. In Indiana last month, Attorney General Greg Zoeller failed to secure the GOP nomination for an open House seat. And in November, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway lost by a historic margin and failed to keep the governorship in Democratic hands.
Each of those races were different, but all three attorneys general faced self-proclaimed political outsiders who spent millions of dollars, often their own.
In an interview, Conway said, “Being a sitting attorney general for eight years cast me as someone that had been in government. In Kentucky, Matt Bevin, who I lost to, was probably Donald Trump one year early.”
Doug Burgum, a former Microsoft executive, defeated Stenehjem by tying him and legislators in Bismarck to the state’s waning economic outlook. He also doubled Stenehjem’s TV ad campaign and likely benefited from Democratic crossover votes. A spokesman for Stenehjem did not respond to a request for an interview.
In Indiana, Zoeller launched a lackluster campaign to replace Rep. Todd Young, who is running for Senate. He finished behind self-funding businessman Trey Hollingsworth and state Sen. Erin Houchin after getting outraised and outspent by both in the primary. Pete Seat, who consulted on Zoeller’s congressional campaign, said Zoeller’s “earned media” success didn’t keep up with Hollingsworth’s paid-media barrage.
Unlike Stenehjem and Zoeller, Conway said he survived the primary because his name ID and previous statewide campaign experience cleared the field. But when it came to the general election, he says he was weighed down in part by his decision not to defend the state’s gay-marriage ban.
The failures were also prevalent in the two years following President Obama’s reelection. In 2013 and 2014, attorneys general also lost governor races in Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Washington, Maine, and Virginia. Some were facing incumbents, in the case of New Mexico’s Gary King challenging Gov. Susana Martinez. Others were Democrats, like Conway or Massachusetts’s Martha Coakley, who fell during a national climate unfavorable to their party. And then there’s Republican Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia, who narrowly lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2013.
Even more didn’t make it out of Republican primaries for either governor or Senate, like Don Stenberg and Jon Bruning in Nebraska or William Schneider in Maine. Maryland AG Doug Gansler, after a number of high-profile stumbles, fell to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in a competitive Democratic primary to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley. Gansler said in an interview that Brown beat him because, as O’Malley’s No. 2 and as an African-American, Brown had higher name recognition and the benefit of favorable demographics.
The recent trend runs counter to conventional wisdom and the current makeup of the Senate. Eight previous attorneys general currently serve in the Senate, according to Eric Ostermeier, political science research associate at the University of Minnesota. By contrast, no current House member served as attorney general before coming to Washington.
Of course some attorneys general found success relatively recently, including now-Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas and now-Sen. Dan Sullivan in Alaska in the 2014 midterms. Two years earlier, Democratic Attorneys General Steve Bullock of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota outran Obama’s performance in deep-red states to become governor and senator, respectively.
“Being attorney general put me pretty much at the forefront of every issue that was addressed in North Dakota at the time,” Heitkamp said in a brief interview in the Capitol last week.
“But,” she added, “take care not to generalize. Because many offices of attorneys general are way, way different.”
Only some of these candidates had the benefit of previous statewide campaign experience. Sullivan and Maine’s Schneider were both appointed to their positions. But Sullivan said his “number of” lawsuits against the Obama administration acquainted him with federal issues and Washington “overreach.”
“It’s still probably the biggest issue in the voters’ minds,” Sullivan said. “And it cuts across party.”
While attorneys general can often build bipartisan credentials by leading on nonpartisan issues, Gansler suggested that the formation of separate Republican and Democratic associations at the turn of the century accelerated the political polarization of the office.
Gansler joked that the National Association of Attorneys General, of which he used to be president, “converted to the National Association of Aspiring Governors.”
“You’re getting more political types that are running for, becoming attorney general, some of whom have a cup of coffee and they’re off to run for the next job,” he said. “And that didn’t use to be the case.”
A few Democratic attorneys general are still looking for promotions in 2016. Democrats Roy Cooper in North Carolina and Chris Koster in Missouri are in toss-up governor races in November, and California’s Kamala Harris and Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, who left office last year, are competing for open seats in the Senate.
“As Bill Clinton said privately to a number of AGs … being attorney general is the best job in the country,” Conway said. “If you ask him why, he just says, ‘Well, you get to go after bad people, do right by good people. If you make anybody mad, you just blame it on the Constitution.’”