During many state elections in Wisconsin, voters may have considered the race for Attorney General a yawner. But in recent times, it seems to have become a more coveted position.
We’ll learn just how prized, in 2014. Attorney General JB Van Hollen has decided not to seek a third term, and several potential candidates have emerged.
The job of Wisconsin Attorney General is to serve as the state’s top lawyer. Responsibilities include rendering legal opinions to state leaders and defending state laws.
For instance this month, Attorney General Van Hollen has gone to court to defend two new divisive state laws: Wisconsin’s photo ID requirement for voting, and Act 10, the law that weakened public unions.
“What position is going to be taken in important litigation is a relatively important thing, Rick Esenberg says.
Rick Esenberg is an attorney with the group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He says he’s not surprised the job of guarding the law has sparked interest.
“It’s a constitutional officer, it’s a high profile position and that attracts candidates,” Esenberg says.
The job has also taken on political overtones, as partisan politics have heated in Wisconsin.
In one instance, Democrats criticized Republican Van Hollen recently when he supported GOP Sen. Leah Vukmir’s move to keep correspondence private. He told a group seeking the information that it cannot sue Vukmir while she’s in office.
Mike McCabe is executive director of the group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. He says in recent years, special interests have realized the impact the AG’s office could have.
“They want to have influence over not only how laws are made, but whether those laws hold up in court, how those laws are dealt with by judges, they don’t want to leave any stone unturned when it comes to influencing all three branches of our government,” McCabe says.
McCabe predicts special interests will start pouring money into the contest in spring, when voters should start noticing TV ads.
In 2006, when Van Hollen first won office by narrowly defeating Democrat Kathleen Falk, interests spent more than $8 million on the race, shattering previous records.
Expect boatloads of money again in November, according to UW-Green Bay Political Scientist Michael Kraft. And he would not be surprised if the political parties whittle down their candidates quickly.
“I think that may reflect a view that long, drawn-out contests within a party are not in the party’s interest,” Kraft says.
So far, only one Republican has made it official; Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel. Two Democrats have formally announced their intentions; state Rep. Jon Richards of Milwaukee and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.
There may be another reason candidates seek the office. Dennis Riley is a political scientist at UW-Stevens Point. He says some may view the attorney general position as a path to the governor’s office. After all, people statewide vote.
“It has worked for some people and it looks logical because it has the visibility and the power, and if you look at states across the country, the attorney general’s job is often one of the most important and it often leads to people running for governor,” Riley says.
Riley notes that Jim Doyle served three terms as AG before he was elected governor.