The role that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison played in the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd has given Democrats a potent argument for redoubling the party’s investment in state attorney general races for years to come.
Democrats have long been seen as under-investing in down ballot races, ceding ground to Republicans in races ranging from city council to state representative and state attorney general. Much of the most recent local Republican uprising happened amid former President Barack Obama’s administration, with the GOP investing in these lesser-known races and winning hundreds of seats across the country.
But Democratic attorneys general across the country, especially those tasked with electing more Democrats to the top law enforcement jobs, believe Ellison’s leadership in the Chauvin case — he managed the team, outlined the strategy early in the case and served as one of the trial’s public faces — could become an inflection point in the way money and attention flow to their races.
“Two words: Elections matter,” said Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “The benefit that Minnesota had was Keith Ellison, someone who was going to look at this from a justice lens, as an opportunity to move toward justice, to hold someone accountable who the jury … declared is the murderer of George Floyd.”
State attorneys general work as the top law enforcement agents in each state, leading their offices in a similar way to the US attorney general. Though laws mandate what a state attorney general must do, each official has leeway on what to prioritize and how to pursue cases in their jurisdiction. The majority of state attorneys general are elected by the people, but some are appointed by their state’s governor.
Ford was blunt when asked if Democrats hope Ellison’s role will mean large super PACs and other organizations will begin to fund attorney general races like they do other statewide contests.
“It’s imperative,” said the Nevada attorney general, who was elected in 2018. “It’s going to be very important, frankly, for folks to understand that this is a team effort. … That it’s not just the governors, it’s not just the Congress persons, it’s not just the state legislatures, it’s also at attorneys general in these states who can affect very real change.”
Ellison, a one-time fixture in Washington as a congressman, stands as a stark example of that. After losing his bid to chair the Democratic National Committee, the congressman — following considerable recruitment from the Democratic Attorneys General Association — decided to run for Minnesota attorney general in 2018. He won the race by just under 4 percentage points.
That win was consequential in the Chauvin verdict. Ellison, from the outset of the trial, signaled that he would coordinate the state’s case, adding a second degree murder charge against Chauvin and directly working on the case with his legal team. The decision paid off and the Chauvin verdict, a rare case in which a police officer was convicted of murder, is seen as a win for the Democratic official.
“I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration,” Ellison said in a news conference after the verdict on Tuesday. “But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice, and now the cause of justice is in your hands.”
It is impossible to know how the Chauvin case would have been handled without Ellison’s leadership. But the Floyd family and litany of attorneys who worked with them heralded Ellison’s work on the case, believing his leadership was key to getting a conviction.
Republicans made significant gains in attorney general seats in 2010, a wave election for the party which saw them gain six total attorney general offices at the same time that they swept into power in the US House of Representatives. Control of state attorney general offices have vacillated over the decade, with Republicans making gains in states like Arkansas and Missouri and Democrats flipping seats in states like Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin.
Republicans currently hold 26 state attorneys general seats, while Democrats hold 24 state attorneys general seats. The attorney general of the District of Columbia, Karl Racine, is also a Democrat.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, co-chair of the attorneys general group, admitted that national Democrats have not done enough to elect Democratic state attorneys general over the last decade.
“I don’t think adequate attention was paid,” Healey said. “I think that more attention could have been paid. I think hopefully it’s being paid now or will be paid now.”
Healey argued that Ellison was just the latest state attorney general to show the importance of the job, citing the litany of Democrats in those posts who helped thwart Republican efforts to circumvent voters during the 2020 election.
“There was sometimes this perception of a hierarchy where federal seats are more important than state seats and there’s this whole notion that there’s some sort of hierarchy and I just don’t think that’s true,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “I do think that we’ve demonstrated our worth and our value and shown how important it is to elect Democratic attorneys general. If people don’t see that after four years, or the last year they never will.”
A salient example of how far Democratic attorneys general have politically come in the last five years is that the Democratic Attorneys General Association was a part time committee until 2016, said Sean Rankin, executive director of the group, when Democrats in these state posts decided to do what Republicans had done a few years earlier and make the committee full time.
Rankin said he and his staff began recruiting Ellison during his unsuccessful bid for chair of the DNC in 2017. The Democratic operative said he and his staff made the case to Ellison that if his DNC bid did not succeed, he should consider running for Minnesota attorney general and, as part of their argument, the operatives noted how former Rep. Xavier Becerra left the House to become California attorney general. (Becerra has since become the Biden administration’s secretary of Health and Human Services.)
“Keith Ellison just demonstrated to everyone how important the office of attorney general is. And it’s another of a series of mile markers that should be showing national Democrats … how important this office is,” Rankin said. “The fact is that Keith Ellison was absolutely perfect in this role … the fact that he was the right person in the right role at the right time.”
Democrats like Ford and Healey hope the focus on Ellison means organizations like the Democratic National Committee, along with larger Democratic super PACs and outside groups, will invest in electing people like the former congressman. Healey said she was particularly hopeful because Vice President Kamala Harris formerly served as attorney general of California and Beau Biden, President Joe Biden’s late son, was attorney general of Delaware.
Aides for the Democratic National Committee told CNN that they plan to continue to invest in state attorney general races in 2022, noting that they made significant investments in efforts that helped reelect North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro in 2020.
Jaime Harrison, the newly elected chair of the committee, also told CNN that the Chauvin verdict “shows exactly why Democrats should be in attorneys general offices across the country.”
“From the beginning, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison showed America that our justice system can and would hold bad actors within its ranks accountable,” Harrison said. “We must ensure we elect as many Democratic attorneys general as possible to produce the change our nation needs.”