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The Democrats: Playing Their Best Chess Match

In this week’s episode, which is chock full of predictions, Lori, Bernie and Chris engage with Sean Rankin, President of DAGA, on his perceptions of the red wave and Democratic winners and losers. They discuss the complex interplay between state and national politics, which Sean likens to a chess match, the Democratic Party’s priorities for incumbent protection, and some potential surprises coming out of left field.

PRODUCED IN COLLABORATION WITH:

Chris Allen, Member, Executive Producer

Suzette Bradbury, Director of Practice Group Marketing (State AG Group)

Elisabeth Hill Hodish, Policy Analyst

Legal Internet Solutions Incorporated

Transcript

Lori:
Welcome back to our listeners, I’m glad to be back with you. Bernie and Chris, good to see you. And I know you had a terrific conversation about the Maryland race just last week with our law partner, Milton Marquis, our in-house resident Marylander. It was a great discussion about Anthony Brown and Katie O’Malley’s contest to win the Democrat nomination in Maryland. And Bernie, I know you didn’t make any predictions on that podcast, and I’m hoping that today, given our guest, who I’ll briefly introduce in a moment, I’m guessing we may have a jam-packed house full of predictions. And I’m sure they’ll all be right. No pressure, Sean. So with that, let me introduce Sean Rankin. He is the president of the Democratic AG Association. Sean, great to be with you.

Sean:

Thank you so much for having me, it’s a real pleasure.

Lori:

Bernie, Chris, anything you want to add about last week? Any new predictions, Bernie?

Bernie:

Well, as always. Welcome, everybody, welcome, Sean. It’s a real pleasure to be with everybody. Before turning to all things and positive things regarding DAGA I would be remiss if I didn’t first comment about a series of mishaps for Republican AGs culminating this week. We already reported on Idaho incumbent AG Lawrence Wasden being defeated by Raul Labrador. We also reported, I believe, that incumbent South Dakota Republican Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg was impeached just a couple days ago. Governor Kristi Noem appointed Mark Vargo, who was the lead impeachment prosecutor for the impeachment, and a former County State’s Attorney to be an interim attorney general through the end of this year. And of course, Marty Jackley, a former attorney general, won the convention just the day after General Ravnsborg was impeached. And so Marty Jackley will be on the ballot in November. Most recently, another Republican incumbent, this one, John O’Connor in Oklahoma was defeated by Gentner Drummond. John O’Connor was appointed by Governor Kevin Stitt just seven months ago to replace Mike Hunter who unexpectedly resigned. You may remember Gentner Drummond lost by 271 votes to Mike Hunter just four years ago, and now he won by a resounding 6,000 votes out of 350,000 cast. He also outspent incumbent attorney general John O’Connor two to one, basically he spent about $3 million to John’s $1.5 million. And there is no Democrat on the ballot this November, there is a Libertarian. So I will continue my predictions. The Republicans will win all three states, pretty resoundingly. And now, moving on, Sean, Lori welcomed you, I welcome you. if I recall it’s the 20th anniversary of DAGA. I remember in 2002, Bill Lockyer, the then California attorney general, Patsy Madrid, the then New Mexico attorney general, and the current attorney general still, Tom Miller, formed DAGA. And for many years it was a part-time organization, Denver-based. And you took over, as I recall, about five years ago as executive director, and kudos to you, you have made it to a powerhouse, into a national political democratic force. So maybe you could talk a little bit about DAGA, what it is, maybe describe the affiliate organizations, and then maybe we’ll have some Q&A and get into some of the races.

Sean:

Well, thank you. Again, thank you both for having me. As a small story, just to kick it off, you were two of the first people I met that were in the AG world, when I visited the DAGA conference in Philadelphia in 2014, with now attorney general, Karl Racine, when Karl was running for office. It was in fact, the first AGs race I had done since my very first start in politics as a volunteer for Ben Chandler’s AG race in Kentucky a long time ago. I recall sitting with both of you in a cafe, taking it in, and learning a lot from the experiences that you had, and the questions, and just listening to the back and forth with AG Racine. So that was my first step. Now, my first step at the organization was, in fact, in April of 2016. So I’ve actually just finished the sixth year, which is really hard to believe. And I remember, speaking with my predecessor and the consultants, and what they gave me on day one was 20 binders of photocopy checks. And that’s where we started. What we did have were strategic partners and people who were interested in the AG world and it gave me a chance to start to build. So I was, in fact, the first employee first full-time employee of DAGA, and it’s been a fantastic opportunity to develop a committee in the current era. We really do look forward to growing out our mission of being a political and policy hub for the attorneys general, for those who work in the state world, we don’t have caucuses the way that they happen in the federal world. And so we actually act as both a political committee, a policy and research hub, and to facilitate the caucus work of the AGs together. And so our mission in that, in those early days, was really to push forward and make sure that all seats around the table had access to services, they had what they needed, and that we could put support under the front offices, the executive offices, to make sure that a big state, a little state, had as much say in a conversation, and that we were taking everybody’s voice into account. So we had, looking back, the challenge, but also another opportunity to prove ourselves when Trump became president in 2016, and took office in early 2017. And that required of us the need to grow and provide a different level of service because the AGs needed something that they hadn’t had before. And we may lean into questions of Trump or AG actions at some point later in the podcast, but there needed to be a centralizing force, centralizing unit to provide information and help people to achieve what they wanted to do. For me, the work with the AGs has been a new world, and it’s a world that you all understand, your group at Cozen understands in dealing with State AGs. But quite frankly, I still find that I’m an evangelist most of the time, going out and explaining to people what AGs do, and the role they have, and how important they are. So it’s been six years and counting, and I love the work I do, I love the team that we’ve put together. The people that we’ve moved from the AG room into governors’ rooms, or in other places, there are now nine former democratic AGs who are part of this administration, including the vice president, of course.

Chris:

Yeah. Sean, I think the quality of candidates that y’all have managed to recruit over the last several cycles is a testament to how you’ve built out DAGA. I mean, we just talked about the candidates in Maryland, Anthony Brown and Katie O’Malley, I mean, wow. Whoever wins that race, you’re going to have a great AG there. And you look at some of the others that you’ve recruited to run against Republicans in open seats like Jen Jordan, like Kris Mayes, who I had the opportunity to meet down in Atlanta. And it’s fantastic the caliber of people who are looking to run and represent a Democratic vision in the attorney general’s office.

Bernie:

We’re seeing more and more, I’ll say politicians, those who have served in other elected offices wanting to be AG. Can you talk a little bit about the, why we are seeing members of Congress and others who hold other elective offices wanting to be attorney general?

Sean:

I think it’s broader than that. I think that the reach and the power of this office is getting better understood. Now DAGA has the most diverse set of elected AGs we’ve ever seen. And we work very hard to make sure that all communities know that there is an on-ramp to taking a look at this office and being considered. I think that the numbers speak for themselves, but let’s talk about them. I mean, in 2016 there were two African Americans who were attorneys general. We lost AG Harris to the Senate and then to the vice presidency, sort of, again, going back to that the idea of the bench, but now we’ve got five. And I think we’re continuing to see different communities, communities of color, diverse communities in other ways, wanting to make sure that they have representation in this office, which has such extraordinary reach and power. I think we’ll continue to see members of Congress. I think we’ll continue to see state legislators. I think we’ll continue to see those who have never been in public office. So I think Karl Racine is a great example. He had never been in public office before, though he had been in government but he was the first black managing partner of a top 100 law firm and he chose to run for attorney general. So, I think that we’re actually attracting a very broad spectrum of candidates and candidates that are diverse in every way. And at DAGA we welcome them to call us, to start building those relationships, to take a look two years and four years and six years ahead. And we have a national recruitment committee that is managing those relationships and doing the outreach because, and Chris thank you for noting it, we have tremendous candidates and a lot of that work starts years in advance.

Chris:

Just speaking about that, I mean, in terms of the diversity of the candidates and their background it’s fascinating to me also because, and we may talk about this in more detail later, but there’s talk of a red wave, and an idea that maybe the American public generally is, either they’re tired of progressive ideas or overreach or they’re too worried about crime and economics, so called kitchen table issues. But you have people like, like Rob Bonta out in California, who is very progressive and was being talked about as, oh, he’s going to go the way of the San Francisco DA who got recalled, he’s going to face Republican challengers or an Independent challenger. And he won that race, I mean, I know he’s still got to go through the second round of the jungle primary, but he won that pretty handily despite those criticisms. And then you have somebody down in New Mexico, like Raul Torrez, who has a very strong record as a district attorney who is very capable, I think, of defending his record on law and order. And so I think something else that diversity gives you is this ability to counter this message from the other side that Democrats are out of step with what people in the United States really want out of their elected officials.

Sean:

So I’m going to do my best to pull out a few of those elements. I think it’s the Republican Party who’s moved away from business issues and gotten caught up in issues where they don’t like the evolution of the country and therefore they’re trying to put the brakes on in places. But it really has to do more with winning and power and changing the landscape, changing the rules of the game, not addressing where the party needs to go. I’m from Kentucky, so most of my family these days are Republicans. So you want to disagree with Republicans we call that Thanksgiving, right? You sit around the table and you argue. But in the end we all get along and I think that’s one of those things in Kentucky growing up is you had people with different viewpoints and you wanted to be independent, but you also found a way to get the work done. I think that’s where we’ve sort of gone off track, is getting the work done. But now we roll into a Dobbs decision where you’re not allowing a woman to have a choice over her own body. That you’re creating a vigilante system for figuring out who’s responsible for… I don’t think people are going to accept that. I don’t think corporations are going to accept that. I think it undermines what we do. And quite frankly, we all know that the C-suites, whether it’s in law firms or in companies that they’re trying to figure out, how do we actually add the benefits we need to keep our people when they actually need healthcare services. This is where the Republican Party has gone, it’s not the Republican Party of my brother anymore or my family members. I think that also goes to this question about the red wave. We had two Trump elections. We saw, in my opinion, a fundamental change in the Republican Party. Donald Trump was on the ballot twice, do you think that there’re going to be more Republicans who come out? I think the question is, are we going to see Democrats and Independents come out? Yes, crime is an issue. No argument there. Inflation is an issue, right? We understand that. But the expectation that there’s all of a sudden these new red voters who have never come out before that’re going to come out, it’s not real anymore. I think people actually can recognize when a candidate, an individual that they know, stands for values which they share. They don’t have to agree with them 100%. In transitioning that to AG elections, I think when our voter base knows a particular attorney general or a candidate, and we’ve done our jobs in making sure we’ve communicated effectively with that group of people, I don’t think there’s a race where we write off, I don’t think there’s a race that we can’t win. I think we’ll be competitive everywhere we go and I think we will deal with issues of crime and public safety. I think we will deal with issues of inflation. I think we have to deal with Biden’s numbers not being where we want to, but I think we can look at the dynamics in each state and actually talk about how do you actually create a winning strategy and how do we get there? Some are going to be tougher than others, and some are going to be absolute dog fights. We know it. I feel comfortable with leading the organization through that and doing the hard work and making sure we have a chance. But truly, it comes back to Dobbs. It comes back to voting rights. It comes back to other cases which we’re waiting to come out of the court and we know that there are going to be other things where AGs lean in more, both sides have. So, I think we’re in that moment… And again, you all know this better than me because you’ve been doing it longer with your AG practice. This office has tremendous reach and effect on so many more things and it’s not all in writing, it’s not quite so simple. You ask what an AG does and here’s a two-pager. It’s much more dynamic than that and that’s why it’s also hard to explain, but why we need to have these conversations to help people understand it.

Lori:

I think you’re absolutely right Sean, especially to your earlier point about members of Congress who now have a high degree of interest in running for attorney general. I think that when I started doing this 20 years ago, you didn’t see US Congressman running for AG. And I think over time as the candidates have changed and the world’s changed, the job has become broader and harder to define in a two-pager or even a four-pager and there’s more policy involved in the job, which, if you’re somebody in Congress who has to vote with all 434 of your colleagues, I would think that AG would be a great job because, take out the voting and you’re really in control of your office and have a number of tools in your tool belt to really effect change.

Sean:

I agree. And you know, Becerra, now Secretary Becerra would say as AG, we’d be on the road together and he would tell a story. When he was in Congress if he wanted something out of the Committee he needed 10 friends, and then to get it out of the House, it took 217 friends and then he needed 51 friends in the Senate and he needed a friend in the White House and they all have to say yes to get it done. And as AG, if he wanted to get something done, all he had to say was go.

Bernie:

I think this is a great segue.  Can you tell us a little bit about how much money is DAGA expecting to spend during this cycle, to bring in a blue wave rather than the red wave we always hear about, A? B, which are the seats you’re most concerned about preserving. In other words, who are the most vulnerable Democrats that you need to protect? Because I know the first money always goes to saving your own. And then lastly, which Republican seats are you optimistic about picking up, and how are you going to go about doing that?

Sean:

Yes, sir. I’ll do my best to walk through that, but Bernie and Lori and Chris, just jump in and fire away questions, because I do enjoy this. I enjoy this, right? When we look at the races, we expect $25 to $30 million in spending this year, and the other piece is, is we’ve always been outspent, but our head-to-head and battleground state fights, we got a winning record since 2016. We’re 11 and eight, so I feel pretty good about how we can actually equalize the playing field, and compete, and stretch dollars, so I think we are really good at making sure that we use the money and make it go further than I think a lot of other groups. It’s something that AG Racine and I have talked about for years, and even on his races. How do we make the dollars stretch? How do we get the biggest bang for the buck? So it’s okay if somebody outspends me some. We know how to win, and I think that’s part of it. So getting into races, we are focused on our incumbents. In 2018, we picked up four seats. We need to defend those seats and a couple of other incumbents. On our list for incumbency protection, Nevada, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin. Again, four of those seats, we picked up. The two we didn’t pick up are Minnesota and Iowa, so we have a responsibility to go back out with those AGs who came in with us four years ago, and make sure that they get home again. And those are, some of those races, are pretty tough. Generally, and we can talk about them a little bit more specifically as you like, Arizona and Georgia, and I’ll say Georgia first. Georgia’s coming home. If you all remember, I said in 2018, it was the one that got away, that there were 100,000 mail-in ballots from the Atlanta area in 2018, that only had Stacey Abrams marked and didn’t have Charlie Bailey, and that was our margin. It was right there, so it wasn’t really a question of if. It was a question of when. Speaking of Jen Jordan, I mean, Jen won her special election in 2017. She won in a Republican district and turned it blue. I think it’s still 67% Republican, and Jen knows how to win in a tough district, and she knows how to keep moving it forward, and I think the state has had significant investment since then. Charlie just won the special for the lieutenant governor seat. Jen is solidly in the AG seat. We had endorsed her in the primary, which is atypical for us, but we saw, after Charlie moved, that we were solidly behind Jen, and we were going to get this thing done, and we’re going to make a huge investment in Georgia. And we think we can get there. I think the margin for AG Carr was a little bit thin last time, and I think we’ve done what we need to do collectively in the state as a party, so I’m excited about picking up Georgia, and we’re going to go fight like hell. Arizona, it was a little different in ’18 and with January Contreras. You know, we were still seeing that it was more of a red state. I feel like it’s more purple now. It’s still hard, but registration has changed. I think that Maricopa County was harder than it used to be, or it used to be harder than it is now. I think that the vote differential is a lot closer. Kris Mayes is fantastic. I think she is ready to go do what she needs to do. She is a good candidate. She is smart. I will point out she is a former Republican, who worked for Janet Napolitano, and did other things, then eventually shifted parties. She was elected statewide on the Corporation Commission. I like this race. And it’s tough. It’s not as… I don’t think any race where you’re picking up a seat is easy, but I think Arizona is right there, and I’m going to throw two more out there. I like Kansas, with Chris Mann. I think Kris Kobach is not someone that people want to see elected to attorney general. I think Chris Mann is what you were sort of describing, Chris, a little while ago, by way of New Mexico and Raúl Torrez. I think Chris Mann is a law and order, more, model of an AG, and will be, a police officer who was injured in the line of duty, went to law school, was a prosecutor. It’s not an expensive state. DGA is investing to protect Governor Kelly. One of the things that’s atypical about this office is that AGs typically over-perform the top of the ticket, so if Governor Kelly runs strong, and Kansas is a little bit quirky anyway, I think with Chris Mann’s background, we can get him over. And then here’s the one at the top, which is more of a national question, but it gets us to Dobbs and abortion access. Rochelle Garza and Ken Paxton. Every year in Texas, there are 200,000 new Latinos who are registered to vote. The race that Ken Paxton had four years ago is not the same now. It’s not the same electorate. It is a stretch run. Rochelle is a fighter. She is going to go push, and it’s not going to be a cakewalk. I don’t think Ken Paxton can wish away the changing demographics and dynamics in the state of Texas, so keep it on your list, and make sure it’s out there. Sit with Rochelle for five minutes and it’s hard not to be a fan. It’s hard not to see her for who she is, so I think she will be attractive to a lot of people in Texas. But I think those are four races that I’m looking at, and that doesn’t mean I’m not looking at other states, just the purpose of this conversation, I think those are places where there are interesting dynamics, or quite frankly, changing demographics and work that’s been done over time that make those four possible, starting with Georgia.

Lori:

Just to comment on Arizona, I think because the primary’s late, and the Republicans are all beating the hell out of one another, and Kris Mayes just sits there continuing to raise money and being a good candidate, and what you said about the changing color of Arizona is absolutely true. You know, somebody would have to be under a rock to not see that, so I think Arizona will be a real challenge for the Republicans.

Chris:

Yeah. Something else that fascinates me about the states that you just rattled off, Sean, is you have two of those, at least, where you have a lot of national attention also being focused, so my question is how does that interplay with what you guys are doing in DAGA? What I’m thinking of is, in Georgia, where you have a rematch of Abrams versus Kemp, which has drawn just incredible attention for many reasons, and then in Arizona, where you have some senate races where my understanding is the DSCC is really focused on those seats and the potential challenges there. How does that shape your approach? How does that work in tandem or complementary with what y’all are trying to do at the AG level?

Sean:

To the point we made earlier, very talented people are running for this office. They stand out when they’re known. They will be well funded. They will have an opportunity to answer, and to introduce themselves. It all contributes to how we actually get someone over the line. When you look at a state where there’s already a lot of investment, we sort of change the dynamics a little bit, and we make different strategic decisions about how we drive that, but we do take that into account. Some states, we’re going to see a lot of outside money. Georgia’s a great example. Michigan, Wisconsin, the amount of outside money will be significant. Nevada, we have to play with that in mind, and we have to… Again, it comes down to choices and good judgment, but also recognizing it’s there. We have to make some adjustments for how we actually play the game, so to speak, when it comes to these states, but again, when you look at our incumbents, when you look at AG Ford, record in Nevada, record amounts of money being raised, right? Dana Nessel, record amounts of money being raised in Michigan. Josh Kaul, Phil Weiser, right? We’re seeing the productivity. That’s what drives success.

Bernie:

Your states were fascinating.  Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Kansas, just fascinating. It’s hard to know which states will go where, but I’ll grant my opinion is you will pick up one of those states. I don’t know which one. You’ll pick up one.

Sean:

Come on, Bernie. You’re supposed to be the one making the predictions, right? So which one do you think it is?

Bernie:

In another week or two, I might come out with it. But one last question before I let others have equal time, and that is which one of your states do you think is the most vulnerable? That is the states where you now have an incumbent to protect.

Sean:

I think the dynamics are different in each of them. You’ve got AG Miller who’s been elected 10 times statewide, so our tactics will be unique in this cycle I think for Iowa. But we also have an incumbent who’s got 40 years of service who knows the state backwards and forwards, who knows multiple generations of voters and that they voted for him for years. And the largest group of voters, the fastest growing group of voters in Iowa is actually non-affiliated. So you do have this base, and we see that in other places too, but you actually see this base of non-affiliated voters who are moving and are more dynamic so I really do look at each of these races as its own puzzle. And I’ve got gifts that I’ve got with each of the candidates and their great experience, with their incumbents, I’ve got money, I’ve got other resources, but how do we play the best chess match we can? So it’s really hard to see how to… Bernie, I wouldn’t say I feel most concerned about one versus another, but each of them have different skills. Matt DePerno in Michigan is going to have his hands full with Dana Nessel. Good luck. Dana is tough.

Lori:

I would not want to run against Dana Nessel.

Chris:

No.

Sean:

No. She is tough. She is hardworking. In the Democratic primary in 2018, she completely outworked the other Democratic opponent. She killed it. She did her job every day. She doesn’t ever pull up short and Dana works very hard and she’s tough and smart. So good luck Mr. DePerno in figuring out a path there because I don’t see it. As much money as will be spent, as challenging as Michigan is and polarized as Michigan is, I don’t see how you beat Dana because you got to go beat her, and I don’t… She’s not giving you an inch.

Lori:

Yeah. I have a question and it’s not so election based, I think AGs do a better job than other political offices of… It’s the day after the election and it’s over, and they try to come together and work together. They’re working on multistates across the country, they’re working on various policy initiatives with respect to the federal government, and I’m not talking about the lawsuits against one administration or the other but really important things, and I just would love your thoughts on how you see that going the day after the elections. Is it going to be the same way or is it going to be that there were a number of these races that perhaps upended the AGs that are in there now, talking about Georgia or other states? How do you see the collegiality of the AGs working together, given you’d mentioned Dobbs. There’s a lot of tensions, but my experience has been that they do come together and work together and I would love your thought on that, Sean.

Sean:

Well, ma’am, I think that one’s a tougher one because I think your point is well made about AGs having a history of working together. When it comes to multistates and needing to do things, there’s a connection between AGs that doesn’t exist at other levels and so I think it’s really clear why they need to be able to communicate well and have relationships that exist outside of politics. Again, this sort of takes me back to just being a kid from Kentucky. I really used to like to play sports competitively because at the end of the game you go do your best but you shake hands and you move on, and I see that, that there are some people who are still capable of that. I think there are fewer now and I think that’s disappointing, but I don’t believe… But this is the power of elective office, what changes today can also change tomorrow. So while we have a group of people, some of whom don’t necessarily want to be aligning or walking across the aisle, I think that that can change too, that we get someone else into an office down the line and you do have someone who recognizes the value of having a good relationship.

Lori:

I’m optimistic as well. Thank you. Well, I think that we’ve covered everything I was hoping to cover. Bernie, Chris, Sean, did we leave anything out? Any stone unturned?

Bernie:

No, I think this was a great podcast. Sean, we are very appreciative of you taking your time to spend it with us and I can’t wait for November to see some of these predictions come true.

Chris:

I’m afraid of asking another question because I love that we’re ending a political podcast in 2022 on a hopeful note, so I’m going to sit back and bask in that.

Lori:

And with that, I’ll just say that our next podcast will be to discuss Arizona, and their primary is on August 2nd, so please tune in for our next podcast which will be out in about 10 days. And in the meantime, I’d like to wish all of our listeners, as well as Sean, Chris and Bernie, a very happy and safe holiday weekend. Happy July 4th. Red, white, and blue. Thank you again, everyone.

Lori:

You have been listening to State AG Pulse, brought to you by Cozen O’Connor’s State AG Group. Research for this podcast was provided by our associates, Ryan Bottegal, Hannah Cornett, Gianna Puccinelli and Keturah Taylor, as well as our policy analyst, Elizabeth Hill Hodish. If you enjoyed this week’s episode, please leave us a five star rating and review. That will help our visibility and will allow other listeners to learn about the podcast. And of course, please tune in again next week.

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