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Herring is new Virginia attorney general

Thursday, December 19, 2013

From Bulletin and AP reports

RICHMOND — Republican Mark Obenshain conceded the race for Virginia attorney general Wednesday as Democrat Mark Herring built an insurmountable lead in a recount, giving Democrats a top-of-the ticket sweep for the first time since 1989.

“It’s been a vigorous and hard-fought campaign but it’s over,” Obenshain said at a news conference. He said he called Herring earlier Wednesday to offer his congratulations after it “became apparent that our campaign is going to come up a few votes short.”

Herring, a state senator, will succeed Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who unsuccessfully ran for governor and was a conservative activist on social issues. He attempted to block the nation’s new health care law, for example, and took on a climate scientist. Cuccinelli is a climate change skeptic.

Asked what the Democrat sweep signifies, Herring said, “I think what it shows is that Virginians are looking for mainstream leadership and they’re looking to have leadership in our state government that is focused on the issues that are the most concern to Virginia.”

Herring, speaking at a news conference hours after Obenshain conceded, identified those issues as better education and a good transportation system to support a growing economy.

Del. Don Merricks, R-PIttsylvania County, said he was “glad he went ahead and put an end to it,” referring to Obenshain’s concession.

“He’s a decent guy,” said Merricks, whose term as a delegate ends soon because he did not seek re-election. “I don’t think he was trying to hoodoo anybody” by seeking the recount.

The small difference in the original vote tallies just seemed to make it worthwhile, he said.

With the state’s top three political offices now held by Democrats, Merricks said both Democratic and Republican lawmakers must “find common ground and press on” to do what is in the best interest of all Virginians.

Henry County Republican Party Chairman W.C. Fowlkes said “it probably helps” to have at least one of the three top officeholders to be in an opposing party.

Currently the governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are all Republican, “and there was a lot of dissension there. I didn’t realize how much there was until I was involved as chairman,” Fowlkes said.

He added that he thinks the Republican Party “needs to do some soul searching. ... If we’re going to be a conservative Republican Party, then they’ve got to be that. They can’t be one thing one day, another the next. When you get off game plan and do nothing but respond to charges or statements, you concede a great deal of power. I think that’s what’s happened. And once it’s started, it’s hard to get it back on track.”

Obenshain’s defeat ended a cliffhanging general election that gave Herring a 165-vote edge out of more than 2.2 million ballots cast Nov. 5, making it the closest race in modern Virginia political history. It led to one of the most extensive modern-day recounts in Virginia as well.

The taxpayer-fund recount continued Wednesday, with a three-judge panel examining challenged ballots. The vote is expected to be certified by week’s end.

In the recount, however, Herring’s edge widened as ballots that did not register on optical scanning machines were examined by hand and the votes added to both men’s column.

Obenshain, a state senator who represents the Harrisonburg area, conceded on the third day of the recount, trailing Herring by 866 votes.

Attorneys for Obenshain had signaled they would seek a contested election if Obenshain had closed the gap in the recount. That allows a losing candidate to take the election to the General Assembly, provided he can prove evidence of voting irregularities. The majority Republican legislature would have met in rare joint session to decide whether to declare Obenshain the winner or schedule a new election.

A contested election would have been a politically divisive start for Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, who has preached partisan peace ahead of his inauguration Jan. 11.

Obenshain said his supporters had encouraged him to pursue suspected election irregularities. Republican attorneys had protested the handling of some ballots in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous and a stronghold for Herring.

“Today is not the time to contest the process or question results,” said Obenshain, flanked by his wife and daughter. “Our goal since Election Day was to ensure we got an accurate result in this election.”

Obenshain said he would continue to pursue his conservative agenda, included a limited government. He also vowed to work on a bipartisan basis, although he complained about the “negative” campaign and left out moderate and liberal Democrats when he said he would work across party lines.

Obenshain was the GOP’s only hope of avoiding a Democratic sweep of the top three statewide offices after McAuliffe won and state Sen. Ralph Northam was elected lieutenant governor.

The last time there was a Democratic sweep at the top of the ticket was when L. Douglas Wilder topped the party’s ticket as governor in 1989.

As attorney general, Herring will supervise more than 400 lawyers and support staff. The position also is historically a stepping stone to a run for governor.

Herring will be departing a state Senate that is now evenly divided — 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats.

But with his and Northum’s departure, there are two Senate seats up in the air.


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