George Brauchler, the Republican running against Weiser in Colorado, called this politicization of the office inappropriate.
“Attorneys general have become these ideological Don Quixotes, finding all these different political issues to tilt at like windmills,” Brauchler lamented. “Both sides look at this like, ‘Wow, we can almost stop this administration in its tracks.’ That’s an incredible amount of power.”
In March 2017, high off an unexpected presidential victory and surging with 28 strong, their highest tally in decades, Republican attorneys general convened on a private conference call. There were deliberations. Then they voted, 15–8, to take the gloves off.
For decades, the incumbency rule had kept the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and the Democratic Attorneys General Association from financially backing challengers to each other’s incumbents—it had kept elections cheaper, boosted cooperation across state and partisan lines, and reflected the races’ comparatively lower political temperatures. Who cares, the thinking went, if the lawyer defending state agencies is a Republican or a Democrat? But that no longer applied in an increasingly polarized political environment.
For Republicans, the justification was simple.
“The stakes are too high for us to leave winnable races on the table,” Scott Will, RAGA’s executive director, said at the time.
However pragmatic its goals, some strategists believe abandoning the rule may have backfired for Republicans this cycle. RAGA is slightly older, and far better funded than its Democratic counterpart. But this year, it has more seats to defend—and it has to spend seriously to keep its incumbents in office.
The rules change has Democratic strategists eyeing—albeit with rose-tinged optimism—even Republican strongholds like Georgia and Texas. But they see their likeliest bets at unseating Republican incumbents in Arizona and Wisconsin, where they’ve run young, charismatic candidates against first-term Republican incumbents.
The rules change gives challengers a financial boost from their national parties. In Arizona, DAGA has supported the challenger, January Contreras, with a $1.75 million allocation, money it couldn’t have spent with the incumbency rule in place. In turn, RAGA has allocated $2.5 million in TV advertising to keep the incumbent, Mark Brnovich, in office.
Abandoning the incumbency rule has “absolutely” shifted the tables in Democrats’ favor this year, Rankin said.
“The simple answer is yes. Because prior to the rule [change] I would not have been allowed to invest funds into those states to support those candidates,” he said. “We’ve got a set of wins that I think are gonna come—enough opportunities on a big map that’s continued to get bigger. I’m pretty excited about Election Night.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are downplaying the impact of the rules change—these tight races, they say, would have been tight races regardless. Wisconsin is typically a toss-up state, and the incumbent, Brad Schimel—whom a Madison newspaper labeled the “worst attorney general in Wisconsin history”—would have always had a difficult road to reelection. And politicos have long speculated that Arizona’s shifting demographics would soon turn the state blue, or at least more purple.