The Republican sweep in 2010 went all the way down the ballot, and it’s gradually becoming apparent that some of the GOP’s lower-profile victories—particularly at the state level—could also have major consequences. In five states, for instance, Republicans managed to flip the seats for state attorneys general, giving them control of 21 AG slots in the 43 states that elect their state AGs. (The office is appointed in the other states.) Though Democrats still hold a one-seat majority in the states that elect AGs, the midterm elections have given the GOP more AG slots than the party has held for decades. And Republican AGs have already indicated that they’re eager to use their office to become ideological crusaders—particularly as a means of defying Obama and Washington’s Democratic leadership.
As I write in my latest magazine story, Virginia attorney general and tea party hero Ken Cuccinelli has demonstrated exactly how far Republican AGs are willing to go to push their agenda. Cuccinelli was the first AG to file suit against the federal health care law—a legal challenge that now poses the greatest immediate threat to health reform, more so than anything that Congress is currently capable of doing. Cuccinelli has since set his sights on every other major pillar of the Democratic platform—most recently decreeing that school officials have the authority to seize and search students’ cell phones and laptops if they suspect unseemly behavior. He’s also continued to use his office as a bully pulpit to slam “Obamacare,” claiming last month the federal health law could force Americans to buy gym membership.
Cuccinelli represents a new breed of state AGs who have cut a profile for themselves as high-profile, strident swashbucklers. As I explain, it’s a role that their Democratic counterparts had originally pioneered by targeting tobacco companies and other big corporations. Intentionally or not, the crusades of Democratic AGs like Eliot Spitzer ended up politicizing the office, turning it into even more of a political stepping stone and putting Republicans on the defensive. Now that Republican AGs have gained more of the upper hand, it’s not surprising that they’re eager to wage their own war.