Big Money Comes to State Attorney-General Races

Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are spending heavily nationwide to keep Democrats out of the powerful posts.
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TV ads are targeting Nevada candidate Ross Miller even though he's running unopposed in a primary three months away. (Sandra Chereb/Associated Press)

The ads accuse Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, a candidate for state attorney general, of living a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense.

Shots of Miller with Mike Tyson and Hugh Hefner’s former girlfriend flash across the screen as the narrator highlights more than $60,000 in gifts Miller has accepted from “special interests” since taking office in 2006.

“He lives the life,” the narrator says. “You pay the tab.”

The $500,000 ad campaign is being paid for by a nonprofit from Virginia called the State Government Leadership Foundation. It’s an impressive sum, especially considering the ads ran three months before a primary in which Miller is running unopposed, and for an office that doesn’t normally get so much attention. Miller’s campaign called on TV stations to pull the ads, challenging them as misleading.

So why is so much money being poured into the race and who is behind it? The biggest underwriter of the group behind the ad is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the affiliated Institute for Legal Reform, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.

The Chamber isn’t talking, but it’s not hard to figure out why state attorney-general races are getting so much of its attention, not just in Nevada, but across the country.

First, the joke is that “AG” stands for “almost governor” in the 43 states where they are elected, as many go on to higher elected office. Spending on these races is an investment in the future. Eight current governors and eight current U.S. senators were previously state attorneys general.

“You want to stop people from getting going,” said James Tierney, director of the National State Attorneys General Program at Columbia Law School and the former attorney general of Maine.

Second, attorneys general are charged with bringing consumer-protection lawsuits on behalf of their states that that can mean multibillion-dollar judgments against business interests represented by the Chamber.

And perhaps just as importantly, it’s easier than ever for outside groups to operate thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which knocked aside bans that had existed in 24 states on political spending by corporations and labor unions.

Targeting attorney general races

A national organization called the Republican State Leadership Committee shares the same leadership as the Virginia group that paid for the anti-Miller ads in Nevada and the group counts the Chamber as its biggest supporter.

In 2012, with only 10 seats up for grabs, outside-spending groups spent at least $8 million to influence state attorney-general races. The top spender was the RSLC, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, state campaign-finance filings and Federal Communications Commission records. With 31 states electing an attorney general this year—and nine of those seats open races, with no incumbent—there should be significantly more outside spending.

The RSLC has poured more than $16.6 million in direct contributions and independent expenditures into state attorney-general races during the past decade, more than any other group.

And no backer has been more generous than the Chamber. Between 2003 and 2013, the Chamber and its Institute for Legal Reform have donated $15.5 million to the RSLC, according to data from the IRS, three times more than the next largest single donor, the American Justice Partnership.

While the RSLC has also focused on state legislative and other down-ballot races, it’s spent more on attorney-general races than any other type of election. That may be due to the fact that the Republican Attorneys General Association was part of the RSLC until they split this year.

With the shift, the RSLC announced it is now planning on increasing its spending in judicial elections. The RSLC declined to discuss with CPI whether it will continue to spend in state attorney-general races through its affiliated nonprofit.

A wakeup call

The roots of the Chamber’s interest in attorney-general elections can be traced to the massive tobacco settlement of the late 1990s.

“The AGs got the attention of corporate America in a big way,” said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a member of the executive committee for the RAGA. “It was a wakeup call. These guys can do more damage to you overnight than a legislature can.”

The Chamber made state attorney-general elections a major election priority as part of its broader “tort reform” efforts to limit the size of legal settlements.

A particular concern for the Chamber, and the wide assortment of businesses it represents, has been the arrangement used during the tobacco cases and elsewhere. Trial lawyers offer free legal services up front with the promise of a cut of potential damages down the road. Such an arrangement netted trial lawyers in the tobacco case more than $13 billion overall.

“Plaintiffs’ lawyers have made a concerted effort to ally themselves with state attorneys general … to continue to pursue speculative but lucrative litigation against a wide range of industries,” reads a section from a 2013 report by the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform on “The Growing State Attorneys General Alliance With Plaintiffs’ Lawyers.”

“Private lawyers have enticed states to bring novel or speculative lawsuits that seek to expand liability rather than enforce existing law,” the report says.

Curtailing such lawsuits was a major impetus for the initial creation of the RAGA in 1999, months after the tobacco settlement was finalized. When the organization was created, elected Democratic state attorneys general outnumbered their counterparts almost three to one. Currently Democrats hold only a one-seat advantage.

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