GOP Attorneys General May Shake Up Senate Primaries

Republicans have no shortage of House members interested in promotions to the Senate next year. But in three of four states with toss-up races, GOP attorneys general are also readying for potential Senate bids.

The top lawyers of Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri are contemplating primary bids against GOP House members who are either already running for the Senate or who are widely assumed to be running. 

Running as an attorney general compared to as a House member comes with a general set of advantages.

The biggest is that attorneys general don’t have current jobs in Washington. Logistically, that makes campaigning statewide a lot easier. Being based in the states allows candidates to deny that they’re part of the swamp. That could give them a particularly salient edge both in GOP primaries, which typically pull them to the right, and in general elections against Democratic incumbents.

Elected attorneys general have already run and won statewide, giving them a boost in name recognition that most House members, who only represent a slice of their states, don’t enjoy when they launch their campaigns. But state-level officials don’t always have the fundraising networks House members might have, especially members who serve on powerful committees in Congress. 

Attorneys general sometimes have the veneer of being less political. In some cases, they’ve taken on elected officials from their own party in their states. But the cases they’re involved in, and their own potential conflicts of interest, can sometimes complicate their images.

Democrats have already been working to tie GOP House members in these states to their leadership’s health care bill. Attorneys general don’t have voting records, but Democrats will still seek to tie them to the GOP’s health care platform.  

Until last week, a fourth attorney general was considering running for the Senate. Montana’s top lawyer Tim Fox had been considered a marquee challenger to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester after Trump appointed former Rep. Ryan Zinke to the administration. But Fox has long harbored gubernatorial ambitions, and Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte’s recent legal troubles may have given Fox a clearer path to a gubernatorial bid in 2020. 

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In the three other states, however, attorneys general and House members considering Senate bids have already begun posturing, with the jesting more explicit in some states than others. 

West Virginia 

The sparring is out in the open in West Virginia.

Before 3rd District Rep. Evan Jenkins announced his senatorial campaign in early May, supporters of state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey created a super PAC to boost his candidacy for Senate. (He has not yet announced he’s running, but affirmed in a statement Tuesday that he’s “seriously considering” it.)

Within hours of Jenkins’ launch, the Morrisey super PAC was calling Jenkins and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III “two peas in a pod.” The group’s website attacks Jenkins for having previously been a Democrat and tries to tie his Washington voting record to Manchin’s.

Morrisey, who’s chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, doesn’t have a voting record. He’s been leading the fight against former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations from the heart of coal country. 

But being attorney general doesn’t mean Morrisey, who once worked on Capitol Hill, is without his own ties to Washington. His past work for lobbying firms, as well as his wife’s lobbying work, could complicate the law-and-order image of an attorney general in a GOP primary.

“His tenure as AG has been plagued by scandal and left him wounded politically, and questions about his integrity will be amplified like never before if he runs for Senate,” said a source close to the Jenkins campaign. 

Missouri

Republican Rep. Ann Wagner has long been considered the front-runner to take on two-term Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. But some Republicans in Missouri are pushing Attorney General Josh Hawley to run for Senate — even though he’s only been in the job for several months.

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“He is a superstar,” said former Missouri Sen. Jack C. Danforth, a Republican. “He has the intellectual heft to really add something to the Senate.”

“It’s all positive about Josh, it’s not anything negative about anyone else,” Danforth said. The former senator, who himself served as Missouri attorney general before running for Senate, acknowledged that Hawley would face attacks for running for higher office so soon after getting elected.

One of Hawley’s campaign ads from last year, called “Ladders,” criticized “career politicians” for “using one office to get another.”

Hawley is committed to his current job, Danforth said, but is weighing a run. “Senate seats don’t come up that often, and particularly now when the Senate is so dysfunctional, there’s a national urgency,” Danforth said.

But it’s unclear whether the Senate chatter about the attorney general is really reflective of Hawley’s ambitions, with some Republicans speculating that the former Supreme Court law clerk could be more interested in serving on a federal bench someday.

For her part, Wagner would come to the race with an advantage that attorneys general don’t enjoy. Because she already serves in federal office, she can transfer money from her House campaign account to a Senate account. That’s a big deal for Wagner, who, as former finance chairwoman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has been a strong fundraiser.

She may not have won statewide, but Wagner’s base in the St. Louis area would be helpful, too. “That’s really where these races are won and lost,” a source close to Wagner’s office said. 

Indiana

Neither 4th District Rep. Todd Rokita nor 6th District Rep. Luke Messer has yet announced candidacies for Senate, but they’re already engaged in a member-on-member primary

Having previously served as secretary of state, Rokita has statewide electoral experience.

But so does Attorney General Curtis Hill, who’s been peppering his Lincoln Day Dinner speeches with references to federal issues and has emerged as a possible Senate candidate. 

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Like Hawley, Hill won election to his current job last year. His top talking point, according to Republicans in the state, is that he won the most votes of any statewide candidate in Indiana ever. “But that’s not necessarily a reflection of him,” one GOP strategist in the state said, noting that the attorney general race was a snooze.

“The guy’s African-American in a party that doesn’t have a lot of African-American leadership,” said one Republican strategist familiar with the state. “That would be a big deal for the party” if he won the nomination, the same Republican said.  

Hill has tacked to the right of the state’s governor on some issues, such as needle exchanges, which would give him a natural base among the state’s prosecutors. “That’s a good place to build a network,” the Republican strategist said.

An attorney general’s focus on law and order issues can be beneficial in a primary. “It’s a great profile in this time where terrorism is scary and world is uncertain,” a D.C.-based GOP operative said. 

But it’s not clear Hill would have the money to be competitive against two House members, who are already stockpiling money in their federal campaign accounts.

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