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Along with the general sweep of Republicans into federal offices this year, the Grand Old Party acquired five more state attorneys general. The bloc of 20 Republicans is now as large as it has been since the 1960s, say veterans. On paper, this means that more attorneys general are now pledged to abstain from the showy multistate suits that, in recent years, their predecessors have brought against national corporations. Once the new attorneys general are on the job, the pressure to join such suits is great. When they mingle with their colleagues at the AGs’ traditional winter meeting in mid-December, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., each first-year will receive mentors — one from each party. Each will hear about an array of potential joint enforcement actions for 2003 — the quick path to the populist victories their predecessors enjoyed — and how that route will bring them help from lawyers in other AGs’ offices. They will learn that, together, each effectively has national subpoena power. Finally, they will hear laments that this year’s races, more than in any year prior, have strained relationships in what some call “the AG family.” Those fault lines were caused by money, as so many family fights are. The 2002 elections were the first in modern history in which both national parties organized to distribute money to state attorney general candidates. Like any arms race, this one is bound to gain momentum — despite the new federal campaign finance law. Spending in 2002 state attorney general races appears to have surpassed that of previous years, according to figures from the National Institute for Money in State Politics. In Illinois, for example, the 2002 attorney general candidates say they spent a total of $9 million; the 1998 contestants had spent only $2.5 million. Many candidates have until January to make final disclosures, so comparisons in many states are not yet possible. Neither party would disclose how much it raised nationwide for its attorney general funds. Democrats say they’d like to persuade both sides to fold the election funds, rather than make simple adjustments to comply with the letter of the new election law. “There may be another effort, to ‘stop the nonsense,’” says Oklahoma Democrat Drew Edmondson, president of the nonpartisan National Association of Attorneys General. If there is no truce, an attorney general’s job will get more difficult as officeholders gravitate to their respective blocs, says William Sorrell, a Democrat from Vermont: “If we get more impersonal and partisan, that will lead to more political calculations about where you should be and shouldn’t be, rather than on the merits of the matter.” The attorney general’s office has long been viewed as a qualifier for the state governorship (10 ran for the higher office this year). But in the past the national parties generally sat out the lesser races. Then came the $246 billion settlement between the states and the tobacco industry. That 1998 event certified that the attorneys general were policymakers — politicians who actually did something in their job that affected national corporations. In 1999 the Republican attorneys general capitalized on their newfound prominence. They formed a soft money-raising organization, the Republican Attorneys General Association, to address what was then a 37-to-13 disadvantage. They pledged to ensure that businesses would be regulated through legislation, not AGs’ litigation. The Democrats’ first reaction to RAGA’s launch was to ask it to disband. The majority pointed to AGs’ long-standing collegiality, anchored by their commitment to the law above all else. Showing a sentimentality not otherwise displayed in national politics, the RAGA board agreed to fund only candidates for open seats, not those who challenged Democratic incumbents. Some Democrats also argued that attorneys general should not be taking soft money. That argument hasn’t gone very far. RAGA, as part of the Republican National Committee, disclosed its donors. But the disclosure was made on a list with the rest of the party’s soft money donors — making it impossible to determine who specifically gave the money for the attorneys general. (The new campaign finance law makes the disclosures more transparent.) This year was RAGA’s big chance. Thanks to term limits, retirements, and the ever-burning desire to become governor, 15 attorney general seats were open. By July, the Dems had buckled and created DAGA. “I’m a realist. I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” New Mexico attorney general Patricia Madrid, who helped host the Democrats’ first fund-raiser, said at the time. The election funds had mixed results in grabbing open seats. The Republicans picked up two well-staffed offices (Florida and, subject to recount, Michigan), but lost one (Illinois). RAGA’s $21,000 didn’t bring victory in Wisconsin, nor could $350,000 win it in Illinois (where the Republican was outspent 3 to 1). Democrats in Texas and Florida tried to portray their opponents as recipients of money from secret sources, but the tactic didn’t wash. Both of those Democrats lost. DAGA money also couldn’t help the party keep Michigan. Campaign treasurers for these candidates couldn’t be reached to learn how much DAGA money they received. With 20 Republicans now on board, future multistate cases may cross fewer borders than they have. In current cases, particularly ones charging drug companies with illegal pricing, the plaintiffs’ ranks may thin. One case in which a change is likely was brought in January by Nevada’s then-attorney general, Frankie Sue del Papa, a Democrat. She hired as outside counsel Hagens Berman of Seattle, a major plaintiffs’ firm. Republican attorneys general have criticized the firm’s hiring. Some veterans predict that the new AGs’ partisan fire will quickly flame out once they’re in office — partially as a function of their personalities, says James Tierney, a Democrat and former Maine attorney general. “Congressmen say, ‘Jeez, I can’t vote for you today, but I can vote for you tomorrow. I can’t give you $2 million, but I can give you $1 million.’ AGs don’t think that way,” contends Tierney. “For AGs, it’s right or wrong, legal/illegal, good/bad.” So which is stronger: AGs’ lawyerly nature or the partisan leanings of their backers? NAAG’s Edmondson fears that party politics may win out. He notes that the pact to not target incumbents is already crumbling. “There are several of us whose opponents have attended RAGA events,” he says. Edmondson’s opponent was one of those invited to a RAGA fund-raiser this year, confirms Utah’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, who is an officer of the organization. Though the Republican candidate received no funds, she was able to meet donors in person. “That shouldn’t have happened,” he concedes. Neither that error nor collegiality justifies eliminating the election fund, though, says Shurtleff: “As long as there are partisan elections, we’re not going to go away.” Whether more Republicans will change the office, or the office will change them, is a close call. Despite his pro-business philosophy, Shurtleff was one of nine attorneys general who refused to settle with Microsoft Corp. Utah, not coincidentally, is home to Novell Inc., one of the software giant’s competitors. The money now may be coming from beyond state borders, but the decisions still get made inside them.

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