RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — With the release of fundraising data Friday morning, the Virginia attorney general race, one of three statewide elections in the commonwealth this year, is becoming clearer. A handful of Republicans are battling for the chance to take over the state’s top lawyer seat for the first time in eight years, but the state’s shift to the left won't make it easy.
Known as the state’s “top cop,” Virginia’s attorney general is supposed to support the state, governor and legislature in legal issues. But professor Stephen Farnsworth with the University of Mary Washington’s political science department said the last 25 years have seen the once mostly litigious position become more political.
“Left and right, the Office of Attorney General is where ideological politicians find a natural home,” Farnsworth said in an interview. “Virginians hear more about what the AG is doing than the lieutenant governor.”
Incumbent Democrat Mark Herring announced a gubernatorial bid last year but rolled it back once rumors of former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s run began to solidify. He since backed out though McAuliffe, who was barred from seeking reelection in 2017 due to the state forbidding consecutive runs for governor, has not endorsed anyone in the race.
Herring's tenure began in 2013 when he eked out a win over state Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Roanoke, and he held onto the seat in an election four years ago while making headlines nationally and locally. He often found a target in former President Donald Trump, signing on to lawsuits alleging violations of the Constitution's emoluments clause and challenging immigration executive orders. Herring has also defended the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
Early in his tenure, Herring also shook the walls of the then-GOP controlled Legislature when he refused to defend the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and instead fought against it before marrying the state’s first same-sex couple at the foot of the John Marshall Courthouse in Richmond.
Herring’s campaign did not return requests for an interview, but in a campaign launch video he pointed to some of his headline-making efforts as grounds for his reelection.
“We've heard Virginians say we have to keep the progress going," he says in the video, before promising to do more.
But, like many other longtime Democrats nationally, he’s facing a primary challenge from a young, Black opponent who wants the state to go even further to the left. Norfolk-area Delegate Jay Jones, a civil rights attorney now in his second term in office, has similarly made headlines as the state’s newly elected Democratic majority rolled back what they argue are physical and spiritual relics to Jim Crow.
“We need to move forward and embrace this new commonwealth and leave the old way of doing things behind,” Jones said in an interview ahead of Friday’s release of fundraising data. “If we’re truly going to move the commonwealth forward, we need an AG with a new perspective on the issues that Virginians care about.”
According to numbers from the nonpartisan political money tracker the Virginia Public Access Project, Jones has pulled in just under $1.3 million, compared to Herring’s $1.5 million.
“We’re running a historic, people-driven campaign to elect an attorney general who will be proactive - not reactive - and will bring fresh ideas and a new perspective to the office,” Jones said of his campaign contributions.
Herring’s legacy, Jones said, is marred by a shifting of the political winds rather than personal beliefs.
He pointed to the recent shooting of Virginia Beach native Donovon Lynch, a Black man, by local police, another officer-involved shooting that has raised questions about the role police have in the community. The profile of Lynch’s murder was boosted when singer Pharrell Williams, Lynch’s cousin, called for more scrutiny.