In each state, there is an Attorney General. The office of Attorney General is usually held by ambitious people who are wanting to run for a higher office. There was an oft-repeated phrase that the National Association of Attorney Generals (NAAG) was actually for the National Association of Aspiring Governors. In 1985, 10 of the 50 governors in the country were former Attorney Generals. Between 1988 and 1996, 20 of 21 Attorney Generals seeking to become governors lost their election. Josh Goodman, in his article, in State and Local Government, argues that the tobacco settlement opened up doors for attorney generals to show the power they could exercise if they chose to do so. The multi-billion dollar settlement with cigarette companies was negotiated by state attorney generals throughout the country and was able to show many of these attorney generals as local heroes.
Has the role of the Attorney General changed since then? Many attorney generals don't really report to anyone. They are, however, sometimes required to defend state laws in court which may place them as defending a law that they may not personally agree with. Luckily for them, they can still pick which politically appealing subjects they want to tackle. In recent years, we have seen attorney generals go after payday lenders, Wall Street traders, drug dealers, and, of course, the Obama administration. All of this has been done to enhance political popularity and prestige. Former Attorney General of Virginia and former Attorney General Bob McDonnell said, "you don't have to get involved in every single issue, but you can get involved in the ones where you think that you can make a difference. It has been a luxury." Virginia was an odd case in that the last 7 governors before Terry McAuliffe were attorney generals. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli ran for Virginia Governor in 2013 and lost. Part of this reason was that he was criticized for the roles in lawsuits that he helped instigate. Among them, was a case where he tried to revive Virginia's anti-sodomy law. Cuccinelli also joined the lawsuit against the Obama administration attacking the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. McAuliffe and Democratic operatives were able to attack Cuccinelli on holding these views, as they were considered out of the mainstream.
Depending on the state, though, the Attorney General can get away with more. Greg Abbot, the current Attorney General for Texas and is running for Governor, has famously described a day in his office as going to work, suing the Obama administration, and going home. Abbot has been a part of many of the lawsuits against the Obama administration and has only increased his popularity in Texas. Abbot is the heavy, heavy favorite to win the 2014 gubernatorial election in Texas. Abbot has been able to capitalize on party ID but on his name recognition from the Attorney General's office to be able to become the newest Governor of Texas. While some of the newly found power of Attorney Generals is seeped in the ability to pick the right issues to fight or to find the right unpopular people to fight, it is also focused on how many people you have on staff. In California, the Attorney General has more than 1,000 lawyers on staff, so they are able to focus on interstate class-action suits. In Goodman's article, Steve Merrill, a former New Hampshire governor stated that he only had 40 lawyers on staff so he was forced to focus his attention on in-state issues. Merrill went on to say,"I never would have run for governor if I hadn't been attorney general because I learned so much about how state government operates."
Goodman argues that Attorney Generals now run their office like a mini-governorship. Many Attorney Generals have to begin each year by creating their own legislative agenda. They submit a list of bills that they are going to back at the beginning of the legislative session. Further, he argues that as the office grows, attorney generals may not need to run for a higher office to accomplish their political goals. This might be the case already, currently 7 of the 50 Governors were former Attorney Generals. There are 4 additional former Attorney Generals running for Governor. At the end of the election cycle, there can only be 10 former Attorney Generals in the governor's mansion. There are 7 former Attorney Generals serving in the U.S. Senate.
This isn't a way of saying that Attorney Generals are becoming less ambitious but rather they can accomplish their own political goals without having to run for a higher office. The office of the Attorney General has always attracted ambitious politicians and will continue to do so. Instead of having to leave the office to accomplish the goals, they can be accomplished after their first election.