Texas attorney general Greg Abbott has a famous saying: “What I really do for fun is I go into the office [and] sue the Obama administration.” Abbott’s relentless struggle against an administration that routinely exceeds its authority and tramples on federalism made him the ringleader among the two dozen Republican state AGs. He’s now running for governor.
So it’s not surprising that Dan Branch, running to succeed Abbott as Texas AG, is often asked if he would be as tough as Abbott in confronting the Obama administration. “My response is I’ll have to be tougher,” he says. And he goes on to name the federal agencies guilty of overreaching their constitutional bounds and increasingly encroaching on state power.
The key word is “overreach” by Washington. “Given the pattern of this administration, it is becoming synonymous with Obama,” Branch says. And fighting overreach is not only a primary concern of Republican attorneys general, it’s the most prominent issue facing Republican candidates in state AG races in the 2014 election.
“The administration has made it a huge issue,” says Branch, an influential state legislator. “The state AG’s role is to use all the tools in the toolbox to push back. The independent authority of the AG’s office is the platform to do it.”
Voters—at least Republican and conservative voters—understand the issue, says Adam Laxalt, an AG candidate in Nevada. “People here know exactly what federal overreach means. . . . I can use this office to fight to restore limits on our federal government and the proper balance our nation dearly needs right now.” Laxalt is the grandson of former Nevada governor and later senator Paul Laxalt.
Other attorney general candidates pledge to resist the Obama administration vigorously. In Arkansas, David Sterling says: “The federal government is slowly creeping in on state authority and individual liberty, and my first priority as your attorney general will be to defend the Constitution and protect the liberty of all Arkansans.”
And here’s a quote from Mark Brnovich’s campaign video in Arizona: “Arizonans deserve an attorney general who understands the federal and the state constitution, that makes sure that all of our rights and liberties are protected, and whether that’s protecting us from federal encroachment, such as Obamacare, and making sure that the rule of law is upheld.”
All this might be dismissed as campaign boilerplate—except for the political context. Until recently, AGs focused on consumer protection, crime, and child support payments. They tended to go their own way rather than unify. But that changed with the arrival of the Obama administration and its insistence on overreaching, especially with Obamacare.
It was 27 Republican AGs who challenged the health care law and won a partial victory—the Medicaid expansion was made voluntary for states, the commerce clause neutralized as a vehicle for federal expansion—in the Supreme Court. Abbott filed 30 lawsuits against the administration, 17 against the Environmental Protection Agency alone. AGs united to oppose the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt to block Boeing from building 787s in South Carolina, a right-to-work state.
In 2010, a new class of assertive AGs was elected—Scott Pruitt in Oklahoma, Pam Bondi in Florida, Alan Wilson in South Carolina, Sam Olens in Georgia, Luther Strange in Alabama, Derek Schmidt in Kansas, among others. Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, another anti-overreach AG, was elected in 2012.
The result: Attorneys general have become the strongest Republican force in resisting the Obama administration, stronger than governors, state legislatures, and GOP members of Congress. Now Republican candidates this year want to join the AG crusade to stymie Obama’s efforts to expand the federal government. They’re committed to advancing federalism.
Texas is the most significant state because the AG’s office there has the manpower (more than 700 lawyers) and the resources to lead the effort. Branch, a state representative, and two others—state senator Ken Paxton and Railroad Commission chairman Barry Smitherman—are seeking the Republican nomination in the March 4 primary. They agree that states are, as Paxton put it, “under assault from the federal government.” They are all admirers of Abbott.
Given the outsized role of Texas, the next AG will be an important national figure. In this regard, Branch has impressive connections in Texas and across the country. He also has raised the most money. But all three have gotten more attention than down-ticket candidates usually receive. A major reason is the issue—overreach.