December 5, 2022

Podcast: A Conversation with Geoff Burgan, Communications Director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association

Eyes on Washington Series - Conversations with State Attorneys General

In this post-election special edition episode of our Public Policy & Regulation Group's "Conversations with State Attorneys General" podcast series, host Stephen Cobb is joined by Geoff Burgan, Director of Communications for the Democratic State Attorneys General Association (DAGA). Their conversation focuses on the results of the 2022 state attorneys general (AGs) midterm elections and what to expect from the democratic AGs moving forward. Mr. Cobb and Mr. Burgan touch on incumbent successes across the Midwest, the tough loss of AG Tom Miller and the ongoing battle in Arizona. They also spend time discussing the nationwide issues most pertinent in this election cycle, including reproductive rights and public safety. Mr. Burgan offers insight on the more recent phenomenon of attorneys general outpunching the top of the ticket in terms of getting votes, explaining that the community connection AGs are able to build with their constituents more strongly resonates with voters as opposed to that of federal-level nominees.

More Episodes in this Series

Episode 1: A Conversation with Geoff Burgan, Communications Director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association (You are currently viewing Episode 1)

Episode 2: Don't Let Your Monkeys Become Gorillas: Congressional Oversight Post-Midterms

Episode 3: Let's Get Fiscal: Election Impacts on Tax Code

Episode 4: Election Impacts on DOE Funding, Clean Tech Legislation and Energy Innovation

Episode 5: Both Sides of the Aisle: Education Policy Agenda in the 118th Congress

Episode 6: COP27 in Review: It Takes a Village

Episode 7: An Update on the General Energy and Climate Legislative Landscape

Episode 8: A Post-Election Checkup: FDA Policy and Regulation

Episode 9: Where to Next? Transportation and Infrastructure Priorities in the 118th Congress


Podcast Transcript

Stephen Cobb: Welcome to another installment of Holland & Knight's Eyes on Washington podcast. My name is Stephen Cobb. I'm a partner, co-chair of the Holland & Knight State Attorneys General Practice and former Deputy Attorney General of the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. And with me today on the podcast is my friend, the communications director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association, Geoff Burgan. Geoff, welcome to the podcast.

Geoff Burgan: Good to be with you as always.

First Thoughts Post-Election

Stephen Cobb: So it's been a big couple of weeks for Democrats across the country, up and down the ballot from senators, governors, members of Congress, but also and especially as far as we're both concerned, attorneys general. So about six months ago we did a podcast, myself and my Republican counterpart and law partner, and we talked about some of the states that were going to be prime targets for both parties. And not surprisingly, this included a swing through the Midwest, the Southwest, and then a couple other sporadic ones. We're talking about Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia. And so when we look at those, it was a very successful election cycle for the Democrats. And so before we get into looking at any kind of each of these states and some of the issues that affect them generally and affected some of these states specifically. Can you give us a 30,000 foot view on how you saw the election cycle evolve and what it means to have these big victories?

Geoff Burgan: I appreciate it, Stephen. It was a really good cycle for Democrats broadly. You know, going to hold the Senate; narrow, narrow defeat in the House, we owe a lot of credit to Speaker Pelosi, who has announced her future plans to move on. We owe a great deal of gratitude to those folks. And in the AG space, we're feeling great over here, at DAGA. You know, right now we are looking at a really good cycle. We have held some of the toughest seats in the country, states that are going to be presidential battlegrounds for the next generation or so. We feel really, really good about where we're at as we close out a really tough cycle.

We're feeling great over here, at DAGA. You know, right now we are looking at a really good cycle. We have held some of the toughest seats in the country, states that are going to be presidential battlegrounds for the next generation or so.

Loss of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller

Stephen Cobb: Not that anyone's keeping score, but I'm fairly certain and I'm sure someone will call me on this, that I was almost perfect in my calls from six months ago as to how they turned out on Election Day with the only the only one that I know I got wrong, which was very sad and something that I know DAGA's talked about. But was the loss of Tom Miller in Iowa. Can you talk a little bit about some of the dynamics in Iowa and maybe just a little bit about Tom Miller and his role as being kind of the dean of Democratic AGs as well?

Geoff Burgan: Yeah, losing AG Miller is absolutely a blow to the Democratic AG room, to DAGA. AG Miller was a co-founder of DAGA 20 years ago. We're celebrating our 20th anniversary this year and AG Miller has just been instrumental, he was one of the three co-founders, has been with us every step of the way and ran a really strong race this year. You know, AG Miller outperformed both the Senate nominee in Iowa as well as the gubernatorial nominee by quite a bit. I think it speaks to his record of service. You don't become the longest serving attorney general in U.S. history without putting your state and its constituents first and foremost over any political party. And while he's been instrumental to DAGA, he's been more instrumental to Iowa. So we will really miss him. We know he's going to continue to make his voice heard and be a force in our room. Ultimately, the dynamics of that state just caught up to him. You know, the map of President Obama's 2008 presidential win in Iowa looks nothing like the map of 2020. That state has run away from us at the federal level. And it is a cautionary tale for Democrats that we do need to work to continue to keep ourselves competitive in rural counties, even if we don't win them, which we may not. A hallmark of the Obama team was that they were able to keep margins down in places where they might lose, but they weren't going to lose by a little bit less. Right now, we're getting blown out in some of the rural areas of Iowa. And unfortunately, after, you know, President Trump won Iowa twice we're locked out of the congressional delegation in that state as well. And unfortunately, AG Miller fell just short this year. So our hats and our hearts are out to him. We really appreciate, like I said, everything he's done for us. We know he's going to continue to do for all of us.

It is a cautionary tale for Democrats that we do need to work to continue to keep ourselves competitive in rural counties, even if we don't win them, which we may not. A hallmark of the Obama team was that they were able to keep margins down in places where they might lose, but they weren't going to lose by a little bit less. Right now, we're getting blown out in some of the rural areas of Iowa.

Incumbent Success in the Midwest

Stephen Cobb: He's been a wonderful leader and another former guest of the podcast. And so we thank him for his service and wish him well on hopefully his continued leadership in any new capacity. With the exception of Iowa, though, it was a lot of wins in incumbent states across the Midwest. So we're looking at Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Three of these four were very clearly marked as Republican targets for pickup. And all four Democratic incumbents have stayed. What were some of the issues that you saw that kind crossed all four states that were helpful in these incumbents keeping their seats?

Geoff Burgan: The top two that come to mind are crime and public safety on the one hand, and the other being abortion access and reproductive rights. I'll take crime and public safety first because I know that was an issue in a variety of races in those states. Our incumbent AGs are folks who are not afraid to take on illegal guns, not afraid to take on the gun lobby. They're not afraid to roll their sleeves up, work across state lines to make sure that we're getting illegal guns out of these crime scenes. I think folks understand more and more that some of the uptick in violent crime we're seeing around the country is inherently tied to firearms, firearm availability and those weapons are falling into the hands of criminals. They are committing carjackings, robberies, things like that. Our folks are rolling up their sleeves and they're getting stuff done in the offices. They're getting those guns off the street. They're beefing up their task forces. They're doing the work to get these things done. And they're challengers, broadly speaking, and we can talk about some of those specifics. Broadly speaking, not all of these folks had, the Republican challengers, actually had any law enforcement experience. You know, they hadn't been prosecutors or they wanted to speculate about the things they do, or they ran ads trying to scare people. Our folks ran on their accomplishments. Our folks ran on their courage to stand up to the gun lobby. And that beat out the fear, that beat out the crime-based fear attacks that we saw in a lot of states.

Our folks ran on their accomplishments. Our folks ran on their courage to stand up to the gun lobby. And that beat out the fear, that beat out the crime-based fear attacks that we saw in a lot of states.

On reproductive rights and abortion access: you know, DAGA is the only Democratic political committee that has an explicit pro-choice test. We will not support candidates who do not support reproductive rights. We're very proud of that. That commitment was made in 2019. So with some foresight, our committee put a marker down and we've got a room of AGs and candidates who support reproductive rights, who support access, who support women being able to make these personal healthcare decisions with their doctors without the interference of politicians. And we've always been there. And this year, it rocketed to the top of voters' concerns, unfortunately. You know, we'd love to be in a universe where Roe was still the law of the land and we were working to expand rights. Right now, we're in a place where the Supreme Court has taken away a federally protected right, and our AGs are doing everything they can in their offices to protect reproductive rights or expand them in certain states. You know, on the other side of the ledger, the challengers, the Republican challengers, they ran the gamut of anti-access. They were proposing a variety of things that would have taken us backwards, whether it was in Wisconsin, an 1849 abortion ban. The Republican candidate there wanted to enforce that ban. They also wanted to let county district attorneys, which he is one, cross county lines to prosecute providers and patients under that law. Michigan, AG Nessel's opponent, bragged openly about having no exceptions to his rape and incest policy. He said absolutely no exceptions for the life, the health of the mother. Wanted to ban plan B, compared it to fentanyl. And fentanyl is a serious problem in this country. Plan B is an important medication that people take. There's no conflating the two and it's pretty egregious that he would did so. You know, these candidates on the Republican side, they were out of step. They were out of the mainstream of what most people believe about reproductive rights. And those two issues, crime and public safety, and abortion access were big winners for us this year.

DAGA is the only Democratic political committee that has an explicit pro-choice test. We will not support candidates who do not support reproductive rights. We're very proud of that. That commitment was made in 2019. So with some foresight, our committee put a marker down and we've got a room of AGs and candidates who support reproductive rights, who support access, who support women being able to make these personal healthcare decisions with their doctors without the interference of politicians.

The Role of Reproductive Rights this Election Cycle

Stephen Cobb: When you're looking at the life of the campaign cycle, did you see, were there peaks and valleys when it came to the importance of women's reproductive rights amongst voters, or was that a constant throughout?

Geoff Burgan: It certainly spiked after the leaked decision in May. We saw a massive influx in fundraising here on the committee side. We outraised RAGA in the second quarter this year, which is an important marker for us that voters were tuned in. Voters were tuned in to which of their officials, members of Congress, governor, attorney general, state legislative candidate, which of those folks were going to actually be able to do something now that clearly the Supreme Court had had rolled back this right. We saw a huge influx of financial support in the second quarter on the back of Dobbs and that told us that, you know, the anger, frustration that voters were feeling was going to be real. Kansas, you know, the amendment failing in Kansas over the summer, I think was obviously a really, really large sign that there was an electorate out there that was pretty fired up and pretty engaged and that electorate skewed younger. It skewed more female. These are voters who were not going to be pulling the lever for Republicans, for governor, AG, Senate, State House, any of those things. It really was, you know, from May forward, I do think the contours of the cycle changed quite a bit. Historically, the party who controls the White House, those candidates tend to struggle in the first midterm cycle. President Trump lost a ton of seats. Presidents Obama and Clinton also lost lots of seats in their first midterm. For us to be able to hold these seats, I think really does speak to the power of abortion and how this cycle changed dramatically with that leaked opinion in May.

I do think the contours of the cycle changed quite a bit. Historically, the party who controls the White House, those candidates tend to struggle in the first midterm cycle... For us to be able to hold these seats, I think really does speak to the power of abortion and how this cycle changed dramatically with that leaked opinion in May.

Attorneys General Leading their Tickets Nationwide

Stephen Cobb: One of the other continuing trends and it's something that I discussed regularly with really whoever will listen is the growing role that AGs have in electoral politics and how they are often out punching the top of the ticket. And so I think we saw that, I'm pulling a random number. I want to say, in eight states, thereabouts this cycle, and I think in states where Republican AGs were elected too, you often saw them ahead of the ticket. I don't think anywhere we saw that more pronounced than in Nevada with Attorney General Aaron Ford, who in what was an otherwise a very close race for those statewides, I think his margin ended up being about six points. I think he was the top vote getter. And in addition to having the highest proportion of votes, what do you attribute, and this isn't necessarily just Democrats, what do you attribute attorneys general leading their tickets from state to state and from region to region?

Geoff Burgan: When you look at an AG Ford, now governor-elect, formerly AG Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, and, you know, governor-elect Maura Healey previously been the leading vote getter in her previous two cycles in Massachusetts when she was on AG and there were other folks running for governor. You see these AGs, out kicking the top of the ticket because they are able to walk into any community in their state, any town, big or small, rural, urban, suburban, red, blue, purple, anywhere in between, and look folks in the face and say, I've had your back. I've been the people's lawyer for you. I've tried to crack down on robocalls. I've tried to protect seniors. I perhaps cracked down, maybe there's an institution in your state that had an abuse scandal. Michigan, for instance. Pennsylvania AG Shapiro cracked down on church abuse scandals. They're able to go anywhere in their state and say, I've cracked down on big interests that have hurt you or tried to take money away from you. And I'm going to get your back when I'm running for either reelection or for the next position. It's something that is harder to do I think at the federal level, folks put on their partisan blinders a little bit more when they say, 'Well, I'm running for Congress. I'd like your vote.' Now our folks are able to go in any town, like I said, across their state, and tell folks directly here the amount of dollars in this town I put back in your pocket because I've had your back as the people's lawyer.

You see these AGs, out kicking the top of the ticket because they are able to walk into any community in their state, any town, big or small, rural, urban, suburban, red, blue, purple, anywhere in between, and look folks in the face and say, I've had your back. I've been the people's lawyer for you.

The Purple Battleground: Arizona

Stephen Cobb: Talk to me a little bit about Arizona. We know that is heading for a recount. That's going to be a process that takes, a final determine on that election, well into December. What were some of the issues that you saw there resonating with voters that made this such a close race? And that is within the greater narrative of Arizona, which could end up, I think, for the first time in decades, having five Democratic statewide officials. Paint me a word picture, if you would, on what's going on in Arizona.

Geoff Burgan: The word that comes to mind with Arizona is purple. I was President Biden's communications director in Arizona in 2020. Our friends in Georgia talk a big game about what they did that cycle and they deserve a lot of credit. Arizona, I like to remind them, was the closest battleground state called for President Biden and Vice President Harris. Tuesday night, Fox News called it and really sent the Trump team into a tailspin. So it is the most competitive state in America for my money. Two issues that really stood out to me there. Abortion access. Arizona has, while there's ongoing litigation, Arizona does have a near-total ban on abortion that is being litigated in courts right now that long predates Arizona statehood. Arizona proudly state 48. You know, right there at the end, and this law this near-total ban is on the books from pre-statehood days. Goes to show you just how long this battle has been fought in Arizona. The Republican candidate there will enforce that ban. He will use his prosecutorial discretion and authority over the county attorneys to make sure that that ban is enforced. The attorney general's race is going to make a big difference for abortion access in Arizona. Our candidate, Kris Mayes, really has has made that crystal clear for voters and I think has been a big, big piece of her campaign. Another huge issue in Arizona. Like I said, I've worked on the Biden campaign there. Arizona was in many respects the epicenter of a lot of the violence of January 6th. You know, the QAnon Shaman, the Arizona Republican Party chair, Kelly Ward, these were some of the folks most loudly proclaiming that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. And that started outside the Maricopa County Tabulation Center. That started on election night, and then in the run up to Election Day and continued well into, you know, well into January 6th in Arizona. Democracy is a big issue in that state, democracy and a sense of duty and country are real, real priorities of Arizona voters. The governor, the Republican governor nominee, Kerry Lake, talked a lot about McCain Republicans and ridding the Arizona Republican Party of McCain Republicans. What she may have done is drive them to vote Democratic just like they did in 2020. And the Republican attacks on democracy, on free and fair elections, on nonpartisan election officials who are just trying to do their jobs and are doing their jobs very well and very transparently, those are backfiring against Republicans in that state, and I'm not sure that the fever will break anytime soon. There is a strain of extreme aggression in the Arizona Republican Party. Their statewide ticket had a number of election deniers on it, including the Republican nominee for attorney general. Right now, as of this recording on Thursday afternoon, about eight days past Election Day, it looks like we're going to be headed for a recount. And with that recount will be an opportunity for America to reject the last of Donald Trump's statewide elected endorsements who are elections deniers. We believe we are in a good position in Arizona, we have a lot of faith in how the process and the voting process has unfolded. And we're going to continue to be clear and closely engaged in that process.

The Republican attacks on democracy, on free and fair elections, on nonpartisan election officials who are just trying to do their jobs and are doing their jobs very well and very transparently, those are backfiring against Republicans in that state, and I'm not sure that the fever will break anytime soon. There is a strain of extreme aggression in the Arizona Republican Party.

Democrat Losses: Kansas and Georgia

Stephen Cobb: Now, lest everybody think that Democrats won every race, there were certainly targets that were unsuccessful. Kansas and Georgia come to mind that were very close. You had candidates who ran hard races but were all ultimately unsuccessful. Can you talk about those two races for us a little bit?

Geoff Burgan: Georgia, I'll start there. Senator Jen Jordan continues to be a rising star in the Democratic Party. She was our nominee for attorney general. DAGA did endorse her in her primary. We felt strongly that Senator Jordan was going to be a very, very compelling and strong candidate statewide this cycle. And we were right. And she was a very, very strong candidate. She is somebody that her star is brighter than ever. She was the top vote getter in Georgia. She earned more votes than Stacey Abrams, who obviously has run before. She got the most votes of any Democrat on the ticket, excuse me. And you know, she has been somebody unafraid to hold AG Carr accountable for slow action on gun violence, slow action on criminal justice issues, his aggressive crackdown on reproductive rights. She has made a big issue in her race. We salute her and look forward to more of Jen Jordan. Consider me a Jen Jordan fan. Over in Kansas, Chris Mann. The definition of a public servant. You know, in college, a police officer injured in the line of duty by a drunk driver, unable to continue serving as police officer becomes a lawyer and later a prosecutor. His love for public service in Kansas ran so deep that despite a life changing injury, continued to serve and continue to put himself out there. Ultimately fell just short against Kris Kobach, who's, you know, been running for office every 2 to 4 years for most of the last decade and a half. Certainly, I think Chris Mann ran a really, really strong race. Kris Kobach obviously has prevailed in that race by a very tiny margin, really close margin. And I think Governor Kelly's reelection speaks to Kansas looking for public servants. Obviously she defeated the attorney general running for governor. And Kansas is a place where Democrats can and should continue to grow their vote share and their work. It's the kind of place that if we put forward common sense, you know, law enforcement first, public safety-first candidates, we're going to be very, very competitive for a long time, regardless of what happens at the federal level.

And Kansas is a place where Democrats can and should continue to grow their vote share and their work. It's the kind of place that if we put forward common sense, you know, law enforcement first, public safety-first candidates, we're going to be very, very competitive for a long time, regardless of what happens at the federal level.

Democratic AG Rookies

Stephen Cobb: So looking forward, I know we've talked about these holds. We've talked about a few misses. There's also a series of new Democratic AGs coming into previously held Democratic states. Andrew Campbell in Massachusetts, Charity Clark in Vermont, Anthony Brown in Maryland and Brian Schwalb in D.C. When you look at the new group of AGs, but also the incumbents who held, what are some things that you see as priorities of state AGs across the country that you think are going to be a priority as you look into the crystal ball the next two years?

Geoff Burgan: Yeah, I want to add New Mexico's Raul Torrez in New Mexico.

Stephen Cobb: And New Mexico, sorry yes, thank you.

Geoff Burgan: Of course. Those folks, all of them ran unabashedly on protecting reproductive rights, on making sure that they were going to add strength to the Democratic AG room on democracy issues. I think from that group, you're going to see good new energy, a collaborative spirit. They're all learning and filling tremendous shoes and every one of those seats, two-term incumbents in nearly all of them. We think that we've got a really, really exciting new crop of AGs coming into our room, rising national stars, no doubt about it.

I think from that group, you're going to see good new energy, a collaborative spirit... We think that we've got a really, really exciting new crop of AGs coming into our room, rising national stars, no doubt about it.

Continued Focus on Protecting Consumers

Stephen Cobb: That's going to be fantastic. I think, you know, one of those issues that I think has gone across all of the AG markets. But I look at consumer protection, I look at data privacy, I look at environmental enforcement and anti-competitive enforcement actions. I see these as kind of the four areas that have really been bread and butter issues for Democratic AGs for the last four years. Do you see those trends continuing?

Geoff Burgan: Absolutely. I think our folks proudly bill themselves as the people's lawyer. Earlier today, heard from AG-elect Torrez in New Mexico about fighting for people in his community, people who need a voice, people who need a lawyer. I think you're going to see strong advocacy from all of them to protect consumers and protect folks who need somebody to get their back.

Stephen Cobb: Geoff, you've been incredibly generous with your time. We appreciate you sharing your thoughts on all things Democratic AG elections, both past, present and future. Thank you for those insights. And this has been another edition of Holland & Knight's Eyes on Washington podcast, State Attorneys General Edition. We hope you'll tune in next time.

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