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The Republican and Democratic parties are edging toward a major change in the way state attorney general races are funded. They have formed organizations that solicit contributions on a national level and then channel the money to candidates in a manner that keeps voters in the dark about the ultimate source of funding. Party leaders have long urged sitting attorneys general to raise funds on behalf of candidates in other states; that they have agreed to do so now stems largely from philosophical differences over increasingly high-profile, activist attorneys general. Some critics see the formation of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) in 1999 and the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) this year as a plunge into partisan bickering and influence peddling, tarnishing an office once seen as above the fray. There are signs that sitting attorneys general of both parties are uneasy with the change. At least a few from each party have refused to participate in DAGA or RAGA, says James E. Tierney, the Democratic attorney general of Maine from 1980 to 1990, who now teaches at Columbia Law School and tracks attorney general races. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, chairman of the GOP group, makes no apologies for RAGA, but points out that it does not target Democratic incumbents, for fear of destroying the collegial spirit that allows attorneys general of both parties to tackle problems that cross state boundaries. Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, a founder of the Democratic organization, says that she and other Democrats followed the GOP’s lead only after their Republican colleagues turned a deaf ear to their pleas to keep politics out of the job. “DAGA would disband if the Republicans put an end to RAGA,” she says. A consultant for the Democrats’ group, Travis Berry, says that DAGA, like its Republican counterpart, will put money only into open contests. Keeping hands off incumbents limits the impact of the two groups. Of the 30 seats up for grabs this year, 15 are held by incumbents — 13 Democrats and two Republicans. RAGA’s parent organization, the Republican National Committee, reports contributions that come to it through RAGA, but in a manner that obscures the role of attorneys general in raising the money. The committee discloses the names of RAGA donors, but mixed among thousands of other party donors, leaving no way to trace the connection to fundraising efforts by attorneys general. Although DAGA was formed only this summer, Berry says it will use the same reporting method. This method of concealment amounts to “money laundering,” says Scott Harshbarger, the Democratic attorney general of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1999 who is now president of the campaign finance reform group Common Cause. He asks, “How can attorneys general argue that corporations should be open and accountable when they won’t do the same?” He says that influence peddling in attorney general races has not become the major problem it is in other contests, but he thinks that it is unfortunate for an office expected to enforce the law without favoritism. One recipient of Republican money was Vince Biskupic, the GOP candidate for attorney general in Wisconsin. He received about $21,000 from RAGA, according to his campaign manager, Timothy Fiocchi. Fiocchi says that the campaign was told only that the money came from the national party organization, with no indication as to who the original donors were or whether it was earmarked for Biskupic. The $21,000 represents only a small fraction of the more than $500,000 that Biskupic has raised, Fiocchi says. Harshbarger is skeptical of claims that candidates don’t know the source of funding. “Donors don’t give and donees don’t receive without knowing; they’re not in this for the good of the democratic system,” he says. RAGA’S ORIGINS Stenehjem’s predecessor as head of the Republican group, Delaware Attorney General Jane Brady, says that it was formed in response to what Republicans saw as overreaching by activist attorneys general, pointing to the tobacco and Microsoft cases. Stenehjem, the North Dakota attorney general, acknowledges that RAGA members are generally more pro-business than their Democratic counterparts, but resists suggestions that RAGA members would swear off class actions or multistate litigation against corporations. He points out that he himself joined in litigation against Ford and Firestone over the safety of tires on SUVs. GOP candidates in Michigan and Texas have drawn fire over their ties to RAGA. Gary Peters, Democratic candidate for Michigan attorney general, said in a debate that his opponent, Mike Cox, is “supported by [RAGA] and that organization has a long record of getting money from the tobacco companies … from the big insurance companies [and] from the big pharmaceutical companies.” A spokesman for Cox said that only a small portion of his funds came from the Republican group. In the Texas senatorial race, Democrat Ron Kirk has accused John Cornyn, ending a term as attorney general, of being beholden to tobacco interests because of his ties to RAGA. According to Tierney, in races that have drawn the greatest national attention — they include Texas, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida — Republicans typically stress law enforcement and tort reform, while Democrats focus on consumer advocacy and corporate accountability.

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