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 lawyers, 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.
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. There’s also a bevy of ultra-right-wing candidates embracing Trump’s 2020 election lies, despite no evidence of widespread fraud, who if elected would have the power to prosecute voters for election crimes and have vowed to use it.
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 is running for US Senate. The candidates vying to replace him present competing visions on abortion and election security in this major 2022 battleground state.
Abraham “Abe” Hamadeh, a far-right former Maricopa County prosecutor who was endorsed by Trump, has promised to enforce Arizona’s existing anti-abortion laws. That includes 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.
Democrat Kris Mayes, a former member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, does not consider either of those laws to be constitutional and has said that no patient or medical professional will be prosecuted for receiving or providing an abortion on her watch.
“My opponent apparently is okay with forcing the victims of rape and incest to carry to term,” Mayes said during a September debate.
The vast majority of Arizona voters appear to support abortion rights. A September OH Predictive insights poll found that 9 in 10 voters agree that abortion should be legal in at least some cases, and 64 percent see it as an issue that would impact their decision as to whom to vote for.
It’s not clear how that might play with the Arizona electorate. While Hamadeh’s focus on the 2020 election might have energized GOP primary voters, 70 percent of likely voters in Arizona say the state’s elections are secure and 77 percent believe the results of the November elections will be accurate, according to a Center for the Future of Arizona/HighGround Public Affairs poll released in October.
Hamadeh has made one of those issues — 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.
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. He’s consistently led his Democratic opponent Jen Jordan, a state senator representing parts of Cobb and Fulton counties, in the polls, but it’s still close: An October SurveyUSA poll had him leading by 4 points, with 20 percent of likely voters still undecided.
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.” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern argues that it would allow prosecutors to file criminal charges against people who get abortions and target people who miscarry.
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.
A majority of Georgians agree with her: An October University of Georgia poll found that 62 percent of likely voters opposed the 2019 abortion ban.
Michigan (Republican advantage +1)
Trump-backed Matt DePerno, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Dana Nessel, 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 facing a criminal probe related to a vote tabulator tampering scheme. And he’s tied himself to Trump — a risky strategy in Michigan, where about 38 percent of Michigan voters said Trump’s endorsement of a candidate would make them less likely to vote for the candidate, according to a September 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. Republicans in the state legislature have repeatedly voted against repealing the ban and have gone to court to defend it. The ban is currently blocked from going into effect while the legal battle plays out.
DePerno’s positions are not in sync with most Michigan voters: Between 52 and 64 percent of likely voters said they would vote for a ballot measure codifying abortion rights in the state constitution in polls conducted since September. 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 and DePerno head into Election Day statistically tied, according to an October WDIV/Detroit News poll.
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.
Chattah, who has described herself as “pro-life,” said in a May interview with Nevada Newsmakers that “life begins at the time of fetal heartbeat.” Chattah told Vox that she believes that because federal law already recognizes an embryo or fetus in utero as a legal victim when a federal crime is committed against a pregnant person, there should be similar standards for what constitutes protected “life” in laws regarding abortions. “If it’s a life for a sentencing enhancement, [then] it’s a life for purposes of abortion,” she said.
But she acknowledged that’s her “personal opinion,” which is “irrelevant” due to a 1990 state referendum that protects abortions up until 24 weeks of pregnancy and can only be modified by another referendum. “I will never prosecute any woman for terminating a pregnancy, nor will I extradite for prosecution to another state when an action is legal in Nevada,” she said.
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 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 2021 Predictive Insights poll, and a September Emerson College poll found that nearly 18 percent of likely voters rated abortion as their top issue. 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)
Incumbent Democrat Josh Kaul was elected amid the 2018 blue wave and only won by 1 percent. It’s a tougher political environment this time around, with incumbent Democratic Gov. Tony Evers locked in a dead heat with his Republican opponent. Given that the state legislature is likely to remain controlled by Republicans, Democrats are hoping that Kaul wins reelection and can continue to serve as a check on the state GOP.
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, arguing that more recent state law banning abortion after fetal viability should supersede it.
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.
His Republican challenger, Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, has said that he would enforce the ban. But most Wisconsinites seem to oppose it: 60 percent oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, according to an October Marquette University Law School poll. Previous Marquette polls conducted over the past decade have consistently shown that about six in 10 Wisconsinites support abortion rights in all or most cases.
Toney has also made election fraud a central issue in his campaign, going as far as prosecuting voters for election fraud over using a UPS Store address 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 this cycle, but Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Trump acolyte often at the forefront of legal challenges to national Democrats’ policies, is the most vulnerable member of his party running statewide this year.
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, cracks were beginning to show in his campaign. Despite earning an endorsement from Trump, Paxton wasn’t able to avert a runoff against his primary challenger, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. He faces a credible Democratic opponent, former ACLU lawyer Rochelle Garza, who has previously litigated abortion cases. To add to his legal baggage, he fled his own home rather than allow an official to serve him a subpoena in September. And an October poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas found that 30 percent of likely voters strongly disapproved of Paxton.
But that might not be enough to unseat him: 51 percent of likely voters in the UT poll still said they planned to vote for Paxton, compared to just 37 percent for Garza.
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 have hoped that a combination of Paxton’s legal troubles and concern about abortion rights will provide just enough momentum for Garza to win.
Update, July 21, 4:20 pm: This article has been updated with comments from Sigal Chattah to clarify her views on abortion.
Update, November 2: This article has been updated with new information on the candidates and more recent polling.