State attorneys general may decide the future of abortion rights and elections policies.
Acrimonious debates over the future of abortion and US elections are playing out up and down the ballot in 2022, including in races for state attorneys general.
As their states’ top lawyer, attorneys general can prosecute crimes, issue legal guidance or formal opinions to state agencies, and challenge federal laws and policies in court, among other powers. Their roles have been increasingly weaponized in recent years, with both Republicans and Democrats using them to block national policies set by the opposite party. But they’ve taken on an even greater role since former President Donald Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and since the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last month.
Democratic candidates for state attorneys general have vowed not to enforce their states’ anti-abortion laws and protect access, while their Republican opponents want to see maximum enforcement (including, in some cases, prosecution of pregnant people who seek abortions). There’s also a bevy of ultra-right-wing candidates embracing Trump’s 2020 election lies, despite no evidence of widespread fraud, who would have the power to prosecute voters for election crimes if elected and have vowed to use it.
The following contests are largely in battleground states where voter demographics have historically meant competitive races for statewide offices.
Here are the races to watch:
Arizona (Republican advantage +2, according to the 2022 Cook Partisan Voting Index)
Incumbent Republican Mark Brnovich is term-limited and running for US Senate, and several GOP and Democratic candidates are vying to replace him in a major 2022 battleground state.
Six Republicans are competing in the August 2 primaries, but Trump’s endorsement might give the edge to Abraham “Abe” Hamadeh, a far-right former Maricopa County prosecutor. Hamadeh has made the former president’s 2020 election lies central to his campaign, saying that he would not have certified the results in Arizona despite no evidence of significant fraud.
It’s not clear how that might play with the Arizona electorate. While Hamadeh’s focus on the 2020 election might energize GOP primary voters, likely voters in Arizona ranked elections below health care, jobs and the economy, education, infrastructure, and immigration in terms of importance in an April Clean Elections/Predictive Insights poll.
Hamadeh has made immigration a key focus as well, saying that there is an “invasion” at the southern border and that he would use the State War Powers Act to defend against it.
When it comes to reproductive rights, Hamadeh has promised to enforce Arizona’s existing anti-abortion laws: legislation passed earlier this year that banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest, and a 121-year-old total abortion ban, which only has an exception for when the life of the pregnant person is in jeopardy.
His opponents are former border security section chief for the US attorney’s office Lacy Cooper, attorney Rodney Glassman, former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Andrew Gould, Karsten Manufacturing corporate counsel Dawn Grove, and attorney Tiffany Shedd.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination will face Democrat Kris Mayes, a former member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, who is running unopposed. She has vowed not to enforce the state’s anti-abortion laws and that no patient or medical professional will be prosecuted for receiving or providing an abortion on her watch.
The vast majority of Arizona voters appear to support abortion rights. A Predictive Insights poll conducted in May found that 87 percent of Arizonans wanted abortion to remain legal in all or some cases, and three in five said their vote would be very or somewhat impacted by a candidate’s stance on abortion. Another February poll by Change Research found that almost 60 percent of respondents were more likely to vote for a candidate who would repeal Arizona’s pre-Roe ban.
Those polls were conducted before the Supreme Court’s decision, and it’s possible those numbers have since shifted. But if they stay the same, that’s a good sign for Democrats.
Georgia (Republican advantage +3)
Republican incumbent Chris Carr, who has attracted Trump’s ire for refusing to help overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, defeated the former president’s handpicked challenger John Gordon in the May primary. But he still faces an uphill battle to reelection given that his Democratic opponent Jen Jordan, a state senator representing parts of Cobb and Fulton counties, has recently outraised him. Democrats are also hoping that having a well-known and funded gubernatorial nominee, Stacey Abrams, at the top of the ticket will have a positive effect down the ballot.
Abortion rights in Georgia are on the line in the race. Carr has gone to court to defend a 2019 state law that bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant. The law’s only exceptions are in cases involving rape and incest when a police report has been filed, where the pregnant person’s life is at risk, and where the fetus has a “profound and irremediable congenital or chromosomal anomaly that is incompatible with sustaining life after birth.” It would allow prosecutors to file criminal charges against people who get abortions and target people who miscarry. A federal court blocked the law from going into effect, but that injunction could be lifted now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe.
Jordan would take over that case if she wins, and has stated that she would not defend the ban, arguing that it violates privacy rights outlined in Georgia’s constitution.
Abortion is expected to be a motivating factor for many Georgia voters: An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed over two-thirds of Georgia voters opposed overturning Roe, including nearly half of Republican voters. Other surveys conducted over the past decade have found that a narrow plurality of voters in the state supported abortion being mostly legal.
Michigan (Republican advantage +1)
Trump-backed Matt DePerno is expected to be formally nominated to challenge incumbent Democrat Dana Nessel at a party convention in August. Their race is expected to be close; Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is also facing a tough reelection campaign.
DePerno is a divisive figure, even within the Michigan GOP. He has called for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election results in Antrim County, though a Republican-led state Senate panel already found no evidence of widespread fraud after months of investigation. He’s tied himself to Trump — a strategy that could be risky in Michigan, where only about 20 percent of independents viewed Trump favorably, according to a January survey by the Glengariff Group.
He also opposes abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or for a medical emergency, and has said he would enforce Michigan’s pre-Roe abortion ban, which was first enacted in 1931 and has no exceptions for rape or incest. Though it’s tied up in the courts for now, depending on how judges rule, it could be allowed to go into effect.
DePerno’s positions are not in sync with most Michigan voters: According to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll conducted earlier this month, about 58 percent opposed the Supreme Court’s decision. That same poll found abortion rights are a big motivating issue in Michigan, with 86 percent of respondents saying a candidate’s position on Roe would be important in deciding their vote. Other polls dating back to 2018 (conducted by pollster Bernie Porn and EPIC-MRA) have shown that the majority of Michiganders consistently support abortion rights.
Nessel has said that, so long as she remains in office, she will not prosecute people who perform or obtain an abortion. But she has said that she would let county prosecutors enforce the law. “I don’t believe that I have or that I should have the authority to tell the 83 county prosecutors what they can and cannot charge,” she told MLive.
Nessel has held a consistent but not insurmountable lead over DePerno. A WDIV/Detroit News poll conducted earlier this month found that Nessel held a nearly 7 percent lead over DePerno, but that could change in the months ahead, given that almost 17 percent of surveyed voters were still undecided. The January Glengariff Group survey found that Nessel was 10 points ahead.
Nevada (Republican advantage +1)
Incumbent Democrat Aaron Ford, the state’s first Black attorney general, is facing a challenge from Sigal Chattah, a far-right Republican. She rose to prominence for suing Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, over masking and vaccination requirements and restrictions on church attendance.
Since Roe fell, she has vowed to imprison people who get abortions, saying that she believes life begins at the moment a fetal heartbeat can be detected. There are limits to how far she could go, given that a 1990 referendum protects abortions up until 24 weeks of pregnancy in Nevada. But she has proposed pursuing sentencing enhancements to allow for incarceration after that point.
Ford has said that he would continue to protect abortion access if reelected, but worries that Republicans in the state could still try to “whittle away at it” and “put restrictions on certain activities leading up to it,” he told KTNV.
Chattah’s extreme positions on abortion could alienate socially liberal Nevadans. Some 90 percent of Nevada voters (including 73 percent of Nevada voters identifying as “pro-life”) believe abortion should be legal under some or all circumstances, according to an October Predictive Insights poll. A Pew survey from 2014 found similar results, with 96 percent of adults saying they thought it should be legal in some or all circumstances.
Her candidacy has also been plagued by scandal: She wrote in a leaked private text exchange that Ford should be hanged from a crane, a comment that she later said was “tongue-in-cheek” and not meant to be racist.
Wisconsin (Republican advantage +2)
The primary in the race for Wisconsin attorney general isn’t until August 9, but abortion has already emerged as a key issue. Incumbent Democrat Josh Kaul has made reproductive rights central to his campaign, saying he won’t direct state Justice Department resources toward enforcing a 173-year-old state abortion ban. He’s also directly challenged the ban in court.
The ban makes no exceptions for cases involving rape or incest, but does allow the procedure when the pregnant person’s life is in danger. Under that ban, doctors who perform an abortion could face up to six years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
The Republicans vying to challenge him — former state Rep. Adam Jarchow, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, and attorney Karen Mueller — have all said that they would enforce the ban. But most Wisconsinites seem to oppose it: 58 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Marquette University Law School poll conducted just before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Previous Marquette polls conducted over the past decade have consistently shown that about 6 in 10 Wisconsinites support abortion rights in all or most cases.
Toney is also seeking to make election fraud a central issue in his campaign, going as far as prosecuting voters for election fraud over using their UPS addresses to vote. At the Wisconsin GOP convention in May, Toney described himself as “one of the most aggressive prosecutors of election fraud” in the state.
“We’ve earned the right to have an attorney general that will stand up for us, enforce the rule of law, lock up dangerous criminals and protect the integrity of our elections,” he said. “That is my track record as a district attorney.”
Texas (Republican advantage +5)
Texas isn’t really a battleground state this cycle, but there are cracks showing in the reelection campaign for Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Trump acolyte often at the forefront of legal challenges to national Democrats’ policies.
Paxton is a prolific litigator, challenging Democratic policies ranging from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to the Biden administration’s latest guidance on emergency abortions. He led a lawsuit against four states seeking to throw out millions of votes in the 2020 election, bolstering Trump’s election lies. Now that Roe has been overturned, he’s identified his next target: the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which prevents states from banning intimate same-sex relationships.
Paxton has been indicted on charges of securities fraud and is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation for malfeasance in office. But those allegations have been out in the open for years, and he nevertheless won reelection in 2018, albeit by the slimmest margin of any Republican running in Texas that year.
This time could be different. Nearly 30 percent of likely voters strongly disapproved of Paxton in an April poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Despite earning an endorsement from Trump, Paxton wasn’t able to avert a runoff against his primary challenger, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. And he was only leading his Democratic opponent, former ACLU lawyer Rochelle Garza, by 5 percent in a University of Houston poll that concluded on July 7. Garza had been running behind him by a slightly larger margin in previous polls.
Texas is a firmly red state, and Republicans have been consistently able to triumph in such close races, with Sen. Ted Cruz eking out a win over Beto O’Rourke and Paxton barely winning reelection in 2018. But Democrats hope a combination of Paxton’s legal troubles and concern about abortion rights will provide just enough momentum for Garza to win.