DENVER – The top priority for Democrats pushing back against President Donald Trump is gaining control of at least one branch of Congress this year, but they’re also focused on a pivotal seat lower on the ballot – state attorney general.
The top state law enforcement position comes with a political weapon Democrats have wielded 47 times since Trump took office: They have sued the administration as a way to halt policies they regard as unconstitutional or otherwise harmful. Attorneys general have gone to court over immigration, the environment, birth control and internet regulation, among other issues.
That’s a key reason the races are starting to gain attention and money.
“No one is above the law, not even the president of the United States,” said Sean Rankin, executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “That’s the cornerstone message.”
How well that works as a selling point will be tested in some of the same swing states that also are key to presidential elections. Among them are Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio, which Democrats are targeting as possible pickups because the current Republican attorneys general are not running again.
They also are targeting Republican incumbents in Arizona and Wisconsin as well as in heavily Republican Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia in an effort to add to their total of 23 attorneys general. In all, 30 states and the District of Columbia will have elections for attorney general this year.
Yet for all the pushback against Trump administration policies, how far to take the message of resistance is causing a split in some Democratic primary contests. Some candidates say opposing Trump is important but should not be all-consuming.
The rift has made for some spirited Democratic campaigns.
In Colorado, first-time candidate Phil Weiser, a law school dean, explains in a TV commercial that he’s running for state attorney general because of Trump. The ad shows the former Obama administration official as preoccupied with ways to hold the president’s policies in check, even taking notes about it while hiking with his family in the Rocky Mountains.
“The reality is we have a federal government right now that is disregarding the rule of law,” Weiser said in an interview.
Inside an urban winery in a former warehouse surrounded by auto repair shops, state Rep. Joe Salazar, who also is seeking the office, took a jab at Weiser last month. He told about 30 supporters that anyone inspired to run by opposition to Trump “must have lived a very privileged life.”
Salazar, a civil rights lawyer endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, said it’s a given that either Democrat would take on the president.
“That’s the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “We’re all going to be joining lawsuits or initiating lawsuits against the administration.”
But he said he decided to run for different reasons – to spread economic benefits, protect the environment and take actions that help children.
Whichever Democrat wins Colorado’s June 26 primary will face a Republican who says that going after the president is not what an attorney general should be doing.
“They’re looking for an excuse to bring Donald Trump into this race,” George Brauchler, a district attorney, said in an interview. “They’re going to try to convert this AG’s office into a political ambulance-chaser.”
Attorneys general of both parties have made suing the federal administration a bigger part of their job in recent years.
Marquette University political science researcher Paul Nolette counted 62 multistate lawsuits over eight years against policies of former President Barack Obama, largely over what Republicans saw as federal overreach. That included one opposing Obama’s health care overhaul just minutes after it was signed into law.
Texas Republican Greg Abbott, now the state’s governor, repeatedly described his job this way: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.” But Republicans bristle when Democrats sound a similar note.
The Republican Attorneys General Association has a website criticizing Michigan Democrat Dana Nessel on a litany of topics, including telling supporters that she would sue Trump, who carried the state in 2016, “all day, every day.”
That message worked for Nessel when she won the nomination at a state Democratic convention this spring over a union-backed former U.S. attorney appointed by Obama.
Nessel told the Associated Press that voters want an attorney general to protect the state from federal policies that could hurt them. For example, she said Michigan’s large Arab population is vulnerable to Trump’s restrictions on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries and his administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census.
“There’s an eagerness to use the Michigan attorney general to fight back,” said Nessel, who had the backing of Sanders activists during the party convention.
Her opponent won’t be clear until a Republican state convention Aug. 25, but the race figures to be one of the more expensive of the attorney general races this year.
The Democratic association has boosted its fundraising, taking in $2.4 million during the first three months of the year. That still lags the Republican group, which brought in $4.5 million during the same period.
Republicans are mostly trying to keep the seats they already hold while vying to take control in Illinois and Connecticut after incumbent Democrats declined to run again.
The little-known GOP candidates are not expected to be a factor in California’s race, which nevertheless is contested. Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, is a prolific filer of lawsuits against the Trump administration, but that hasn’t prevented him from drawing a challenger from within his own party.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has said he, too, would be eager to challenge Trump policies but says Becerra has been so focused on Trump that he is not doing enough on other issues, such as the opioid epidemic, gun violence and going after corporate polluters.
“We can do more than just resist Trump,” Jones said.
Becerra says Jones is being deceptive, pointing to his office’s prosecutions for illegal gun possession, sex trafficking, embezzlement and other offenses.
The state’s unusual primary system, which allows the top two candidates to advance regardless of party affiliation, virtually assures that the two Democrats will continue their fight beyond Tuesday’s primary.