National political themes will lead off the campaign for Pennsylvania's next attorney general

FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is seen in Harrisburg, Pa. National political themes will lead off the campaign for Pennsylvania's next attorney general, an office that played a major role — and gained national notoriety — in fighting lawsuits designed to keep then-President Donald Trump in power after he lost 2020's election to Democrat Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — National political themes will lead off the campaign for Pennsylvania’s next attorney general, an office that played a major role — and gained national notoriety — in fighting lawsuits designed to keep Donald Trump in power after he lost the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden.

The nominees — Democrat Eugene DePasquale, the former twice-elected state auditor general, and Republican Dave Sunday, the twice-elected district attorney of York County — will carry forward messages they honed in their primary campaigns into their November general election contest.

DePasquale says his top two priorities reflect the concerns he heard from Democratic primary voters: protecting elections and abortion rights.

DePasquale said Pennsylvanians see the state’s top law enforcement office differently following Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the U.S. Supreme Court overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision protecting abortion rights.

Its law enforcement role is still important, DePasquale said. “But abortion rights and democracy and voting rights were over and over and over again expressed to me by voters.”

Sunday says the fentanyl crisis is “the number one issue facing Pennsylvanians,” and he packages it with a national GOP talking point during an election year when Trump is putting a target on Biden’s immigration policy: “every state is a border state.”

Sunday said his focus on fentanyl isn’t political, but reflects his experience both as a county prosecutor and on the campaign trail.

“When I started talking about the things that I’ve done as an elected D.A., I was shocked, actually, how many people waited to privately talk to me after every event to tell me that they had a child that died of an overdose, a brother that died of an overdose,” Sunday said in an interview.

The meat and potatoes of Pennsylvania’s attorney general is prosecuting fraudsters, drug traffickers, gun traffickers, public corruption and environmental crimes, while defending state agencies against lawsuits.

But, state attorneys general also are becoming increasingly political and reflecting the intense polarization of the nation’s two major parties, said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University.

As part of that, they have become big players in forging national policy by increasingly challenging federal laws and regulations in court, usually in bands of Republican-led states or Democratic-led states, Nolette said.

In interviews, both DePasquale and Sunday nodded to the need for safe communities and said they would fight violent crime. They also talked of the need to treat the underlying causes of crime, such as addiction and mental illness.

When it comes to fighting fentanyl, they give similar answers: work with all levels of government and the treatment community.

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are estimated to kill more than 150 Americans every day, and Biden’s administration says it has accelerated its efforts to stop the flow into the United States. More than 90% of illegally imported fentanyl is seized at the southwestern border, smuggled mostly in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Both say they will defend Pennsylvania law making abortion legal through 23 weeks of pregnancy.

Sunday, however, declined to discuss his position on abortion rights, saying, “I’m not running to be a legislator.”

DePasquale said he supports abortion rights and predicted that the attorney general will be called on to protect women coming to Pennsylvania for an abortion from officials in anti-abortion states who might try to prosecute them or get their health care records.

Fifteen Democratic-controlled states have laws intended to protect providers and others from such prosecutions.

Another possibility is that Pennsylvania’s next attorney general — to be sworn in in January — will face litigation surrounding this November’s presidential election, when the state is again expected to be a premier battleground state.

Sunday and DePasquale both say they are prepared for that possibility.

Sunday said he doesn’t question that Biden won the election in 2020, but he hasn’t rejected Trump’s baseless claims that widespread fraud changed the outcome in Pennsylvania or anywhere else. Sunday said he could only speak to the election fraud claims that his office investigated in York County.

Officials in Trump’s own administration said they found no evidence of fraud.

DePasquale said there should be no question about the validity of the 2020 election, saying there is a principle involved in accepting multiple court decisions that rejected Trump’s claims of election fraud.

“And if you’re not willing to accept that,” DePasquale said, “then I question whether you even support following the rule of law in Pennsylvania.”


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