Will the Trump Era Put Illinois’ Race for Attorney General on a National Stage?

Recently, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan surprised Illinois politicos by announcing she will not seek a fifth term. In the following weeks, a flurry of activity has taken over the news cycle, as many well-known contenders consider a run to replace Madigan.

Illinois’ AG race, which was already guaranteed to be hotly contested once Republican challenger Erika Harold began to gain steam, is shaping up to be a highly-publicized contest. The Illinois AG race follows a rising trend across the nation, where competition for these statewide posts is fierce, especially among Democratic hopefuls.

A Multi-Candidate Race in Illinois
Prior to Madigan’s announcement of her intentions not to seek re-election, Illinois Republicans selected Erika Harold, a Harvard Law graduate and attorney in Champaign County, as their challenger. After Madigan’s announcement, several Democrats also joined the race, with a handful of others considering runs. Among those candidates already declared are State Senator Kwame Raoul and State Representative Scott Drury.

Raoul was re-elected to his Senate seat in 2012, so he will not need to forfeit his spot in the Illinois Senate to run for attorney general. Drury, on the other hand, was running for governor before he began his campaign for AG, and had already planned on leaving the House when he declared his candidacy.

Also running on the Democratic side are Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and Sharon Fairley, who has announced her intentions to resign her post as head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability to run for attorney general.

How Much Will the Race Cost?
Illinois’ most expensive attorney general race on record was the 2002 showdown between Lisa Madigan and Joe Birkett. 2002 saw an interesting mix of political circumstances: a first-term Republican president, scandals in the Governor’s office, and an open attorney general seat. The Primary and General Election candidates spent a total of $18 million in the race for the open seat. Since then, the most expensive AG race cost candidates $4 million.

Since 2002, only 5 races for attorney general across the US have cost more than the $18 million Illinois contest. The most expensive race took place in California in 2010, when $34 million was spent between Democrat Kamala Harris, who won the race, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, and their seven combined primary opponents. That same year, California also saw the most expensive gubernatorial race in US history, which cost an estimated $280 million.

Current trends in the gubernatorial race and state legislative races indicate 2018 could witness unprecedented spending by candidates and super PACs, and the same could happen in the race for AG. National trends also point to an increased significance for the AG post as states continue to battle with the Trump administration.

Importance of the AG Race on the National Level
Many states’ attorneys general have been active this year in pushing back on specific items in President Trump’s agenda. Lisa Madigan has actively challenged the Trump administration throughout the eight months since Trump took office. Since January, Madigan’s office has sued Trump’s EPA, the Department of Education, and the President’s administration over deregulation and executive orders, including Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in early September.

A willingness to challenge the president may be a prerequisite for candidates hoping to become attorney general in Illinois. According to a Gallup report, President Trump had an average approval rating of 36% in Illinois through June 30, when his national approval rating averaged 40%. More recent polls conducted on the state level are not available, but since July 1, the president’s public support has stayed between 38% and 42% on the national level.

For both the Democratic and Republican Parties, the AG’s role in times of national importance can place a high value on these races. The Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) committed last week to inject $15 million into races for attorney general in states with vulnerable seats. This latest push comes after the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) has spent $23 million over the past two years to secure their 27 attorneys general offices nationwide.

Across the US, there will be 30 attorney general races in 2018. In some states, including Illinois, state governments divided between Democrats and Republicans give an indication that these contests are winnable by either party. In other states, close 2016 election results in traditional solidly red or blue states give candidates hope of winning their races.

In Wisconsin, candidate Josh Kaul is a Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. Despite the fact that Wisconsin has a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, Kaul’s candidacy is backed by DAGA as a vulnerable office, since Hillary Clinton lost the state to President Trump by just 1% of the vote. However, Wisconsin Republicans are ready for a fight, helping Schimel raise $454,000 for his campaign. For comparison, in 2014, Schimel did not reach that fundraising amount until 3 months before the election.

And while many people consider Illinois a consistently Democratic state, recent election results warn against counting either party out of a big statewide race. Gaining the governor’s mansion in 2014 and picking up seats in the General Assembly in 2016, Illinois Republicans have shown their ability to keep races close, especially when the stakes are high. The possibility of a close race, the unprecedented amounts of money, and the national importance of the office make the Illinois attorney general race a potential target for national attention, and the resulting money that attention brings.


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