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How attorneys general became the resistance — against both Trump and Biden

Dan Bishop at a podium
Steve Harrison
U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) kicked off his campaign with a press conference at Maggiano's. He's running for North Carolina attorney general.

North Carolina Republican Rep. Dan Bishop gave a preview last week of his campaign for attorney general: law and order.

He said in a news conference that the “effort to demonize and delegitimize law enforcement led directly to rampant increases in crime” and that “the stupidest move in politics in the history of America has been to say we should defund our police.”

Bishop acknowledged that he would likely be supporting law enforcement from a bully pulpit rather than through litigation.

Backing the blue may be more talk than action, but Bishop noted one way he believes he would have tangible impact as attorney general: Suing the Biden administration, should there be a second term.

“Attorneys general in the state have emerged as a very potent force in keeping the federal agencies and bureaucracies in bounds,” Bishop said.

He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that the president couldn’t cancel debt stemmed from a case led by Arkansas’ Republican attorney general. And that Republican attorneys general from Louisiana and Missouri brought a lawsuit against the Biden administration for allegedly pressuring social media companies to take down material it found objectionable.

You could make the case that Bishop would be weaponizing the attorney general position against Democrats, but you can’t say he started it.

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Democratic AGs challenged Trump

An NBC News story from 2020 noted that “During President Donald Trump's four years in office, his administration has sparred in court with state attorneys general over nearly every issue.”

The story continued: “A review of litigation against federal agencies during the Trump administration shows that state attorneys general have filed 138 multistate lawsuits since he took office, according to data compiled by Paul Nolette, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee who studies the Office of Attorney General.

It's a sharp increase from Trump's predecessors, including Barack Obama, whose administration was sued 78 times during his two presidential terms, and George W. Bush, whose administration was sued 76 times during his two terms.”

It’s unclear if GOP attorneys general are filing as many lawsuits against the Biden administration, but they have been busy.

In addition to lawsuits over student loan debt and social media companies, they have sued over immigration policy, the 2020 election, LGBT school guidance andclimate policy.

Suing the Biden administration would likely keep Bishop in the spotlight. He has a huge media platform today as a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Big statewide race coming

Bishop’s recent career has been an interesting one.

He’s perhaps best known, at least in North Carolina, for writing the so-called bathroom bill in 2016. The fallout from HB2 led to Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ defeat a year later and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory to lose his reelection bid in 2016. (McCrory attributes his loss to opposition to toll lanes in north Mecklenburg instead of HB2.)

Bishop has won five general elections since then, although he’s had two pieces of good fortune along the way.

The first came in 2018 when Bishop won reelection to the state Senate by six percentage points over Democrat Chad Stachowicz, who was a particularly weak candidate after having been charged with DWI more than a decade ago. He also appeared to joke about the arrest in an online chat room.

Bishop ran a blistering negative campaign against him, and it paid off.

In that 2018 blue wave election, Democrats won almost every partisan race in Mecklenburg County. Bishop was the Republicans' only win in the state legislature. He won precincts that Democrat Dan McCready won easily in his race for Congress against Republican Mark Harris.

Was that due to having a weak opponent? Or was he still exciting GOP and unaffiliated voters?

That brings us to the second piece of good fortune.

With Mecklenburg’s demographic changes threatening Bishop’s political career (there hasn’t been a Mecklenburg Republican state senator since Bishop), the North Carolina Board of Elections called for a new election in the 9th Congressional District in 2019 because of the absentee mail ballot scandal that helped Harris appear to defeat McCready.

When Mark Harris decided not to run again, Bishop jumped in. He easily beat nine other Republicans in the primary, and then edged out McCready by two percentage points in the general election.

The attorney general race will be Bishop’s first statewide.

His likely opponent is Charlotte-area Rep. Jeff Jackson, who is waiting on the General Assembly to draw a new congressional map this fall. It’s widely assumed that Jackson will be put in a GOP-leaning district, pushing him into the race for attorney general.

Democratic Congressman Jeff Jackson of Charlotte speaks at a rally Sunday to protest Tricia Cotham's recent switch to the Republican Party.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Democratic Congressman Jeff Jackson of Charlotte speaks at a rally Sunday to protest Tricia Cotham's recent switch to the Republican Party.

At his news conference, Bishop was asked about Jackson as an opponent.

Bishop was surprisingly measured, given his reputation of being abrasive.

“I think Jeff is delighted to be in Congress. I think he really wants to stay there,” Bishop said. “All I can do is tell you who I am.”

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.