Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall may coast to victory on Nov. 6, but not without the help of some powerful friends from up north.
Marshall, who was appointed to office in 2017, survived a dramatic primary challenge with an influx of $735,000 to his campaign from the political action committee of the Republican Attorneys General Association, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Those contributions are now the subject of a pending ethics complaint arguing the money violates Alabama’s campaign finance laws — and they are raising eyebrows because they came from across state lines.
"The people of Alabama need to know that their attorney general is not working for any out-of-state interests," the Democratic challenger, Joe Siegelman, said in October to al.com. Siegelman and Troy King, one of Marshall’s primary opponents, are pressing for a ruling on the complaint.
The dispute over this hefty chunk of cash also illustrates the state of play in 2018 attorneys general races nationwide: more national money, more competition and more at stake.
Attorney general has always been a springboard to higher office — the “AG” of attorney general should stand for “aspiring governor,” to hear some tell it — but since 2014, when a comparable number of states chose their attorneys general, the once-staid campaigns have become growing targets for out-of-state influence.
Candidates for attorney general this year have raised a third more than at this point in the 2014 campaign cycle, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. Thirty states are electing attorneys general this year, but races in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida appear especially close. Their resolution could shape the political landscape of the states and even the future of the Trump administration.
That’s because attorneys general have realized the power of banding together to file high-profile lawsuits to impact policy beyond their borders, especially since 1998, when over 40 state attorneys general reached a more than $200 billion settlement with four tobacco companies about cigarette marketing that downplayed health risks.
The practice matured during the Obama years, which saw 62 lawsuits involving multiple attorneys general against the federal government, including suits challenging Affordable Care Act fees and the Clean Air Act, according to data gathered by Paul Nolette, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency alone, attorneys general working together have already filed or joined 61 suits against the administration, challenging rules such as the EPA rollback of Clean Air Act regulations and child separations at the border.
Working together allows attorneys general offices to share resources and catapult issues onto the national stage. It’s made the job more visible and somewhat more partisan, says James Tierney, a Democrat who was Maine’s attorney general from 1980 to 1990 and now teaches a course at Harvard Law School on the role of state attorneys general.
“Ninety-five percent of what any attorney general does only affects their own state,” Tierney said, referring to responsibilities like overseeing criminal investigations. “The other 5 percent, whether it’s suing the president or not suing the president, that’s huge, and so that's what attracts the media attention.”
Previous election cycles operated under a so-called “incumbency rule” where national attorneys general groups from both parties agreed not to lend resources to campaigns targeting incumbents during election years. The agreement helped maintain the goodwill needed to coordinate investigations across state and party lines. Republicans did away with that rule in 2017, though, and unsuccessfully challenged Democrat Mark Herring in Virginia. In 2018, however, it’s Republicans who are on the defensive. Republicans make up 12 of the 18 incumbents running for re-election this year.