Democratic attorneys general, aiming to take on the Trump administration on a growing number of fronts, are planning to spend $10 to 15 million to elect more of their own next year.
The offensive comes as Democratic attorneys general have already challenged the White House’s travel ban, its planned border wall, rollback of environmental regulations and President Donald Trump’s business dealings. It’s also part of a longer-term effort to build a bigger and more diverse bench for the party to draw on in gubernatorial and Senate races over the next decade.
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The hope, according to sources familiar with the effort, is to catch up to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which ramped up its legal and political work during the Obama years, notching major successes on both counts. RAGA put $23 million into races in the last two years, helping win and hold 29 of the country’s attorneys general offices.
In addition to protecting incumbents, Democrats have identified top targets they want to capture — including in Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada. And, banking on presumed Democratic-friendly trends in 2018, they’re eyeing other states that will be tougher to flip.
“DAGA has spent a lot of time running around the country to identify the best and strongest candidates for AG races in states like Arizona, Colorado, Texas and even Florida,” said Karl Racine, the Washington, D.C. attorney general and DAGA co-chair, who himself just passed on entering his city’s mayoral race to run for re-election.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who is on the DAGA steering committee, has been speaking with recruits individually. She credits several of whom she sees as strong candidates to the success she and her colleagues have had on the travel ban lawsuits and in bringing President Donald Trump to court on emoluments, education policy, environmental regulations and his proposed border wall.
“What we’ve seen since Trump’s election is the role of state AGs, and why it’s such an important seat,” Healey said, in an interview over the summer in her office in Boston. “That is really where a lot of the action’s been, and will continue to be.”
Mark Herring’s reelection race in Virginia this November is being used as a test. They’re rolling out social media advertising strategies and having fellow attorneys general host fundraisers for him in their home states. That’s on top of the $1 million DAGA has put directly into his campaign, according to officials, compared to the now $800,000 and dedicated website RAGA has put behind its candidate.
“It’s about being integrated into what they’re doing, making sure a good team is put together, making sure we are preparing them to become AGs,” said Sean Rankin, hired as the executive director by DAGA last summer to build up the group.
Though DAGA won’t endorse in primaries and will make its help available to any candidates running, Rankin has gone prospecting for recruits around the country. He met with Xavier Becerra the day after his appointment as attorney general and pushed him to commit to running for reelection.
Rankin has been working with recommendations from the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, EMILY’s List, Latino Victory Project, Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He and others from DAGA have also maneuvered to edge people out of races, including asking a major union in Michigan to lean on one prospective candidate not to run. In Colorado, they helped guide a candidate out of the AG race and into a House race.
“This can no longer be considered just a starter office. You’re not only doing this just to move on to something else,” Rankin said. “Newly elected AGs have to want to do this work now, on Day One. We have a mission.”
Many of the sitting AGs have gotten involved in the campaign efforts, both in individual phone calls with recruits and group interviews of prospective candidates at DAGA meetings in Portland over the summer and in Nashville earlier this month.
“We don’t want to be an association that is excluding people from their right to compete. But it does give us an early indication of which candidate is best prepared,” said Racine, who added that he’s on the phone with a newly identified candidate at least once a week.
High on the DAGA list is Steve Dettelbach, the former U.S. attorney running in Ohio, hoping to flip control of the office now that Mike DeWine is running for governor. One of Racine’s partners at his old firm went to law school with Dettelbach, who introduced them. Racine invited him to the DAGA event on the sidelines of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, and began introducing him to donors.
Dettelbach and Rankin huddled before the event, in a restaurant just off Rittenhouse Square.
Get in early, Rankin told Dettelbach. Clear the field.
He listened, and officially declared at the end of May this year. But by then the word was out, and no other Democrat got into the race. In the time since, in addition to traveling to DAGA events, Dettelbach has been consulting on the phone with other attorneys general as he develops policy proposals ranging from consumer protection to pharmaceutical prosecutions.
Dettelbach has experience with the legal issues, but the campaign side is all new to him.
“I’ve never dealt with media consultants before, I’ve never dealt with pollsters before. DAGA is able to say, ‘Here are the building blocks of how you build a campaign. Here’s what you have to do to do fundraising,’” Dettelbach said. “I wouldn’t have known any of that.”
The plan is to move aggressively into 2018, then gear up for 2019 races in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana, before another batch of races in 2020. Last week, DAGA announced a pledge to get women to make up 50 percent of Democratic attorneys general by 2022, and they’ve been emphasizing minority recruitment — currently, Racine is the only African-American attorney generala in the country, and there are just two Latino attorneys general, in California and New Mexico.
Rankin and his expanded staff, including a data scientist who previously worked for Booz Allen Hamilton consulting, are building off results in social media pilot programs from last year in Oregon and this year in Northern Virginia on how to improve targeting and actively manage online inventory. DAGA has also been weighing in on communication strategy, designing messages to better break through and analyzing polls.
Attorneys general also plan to hit the trail for each other.
“You’re going to see the whole apparatus,” Racine said, “absolutely focused on every race.”