After a decade of statewide losses, a handful of Virginia Republicans hope to unseat the twice-elected incumbent, Democrat Mark Herring. But so does a young, progressive Democratic primary opponent.
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.
Herring has called for an independent investigation into the incident. But Jones pointed out that a controversial video of Black Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario being pepper sprayed, assaulted and eventually released without charges by Windsor police is getting a full investigation from the AG’s Civil Rights Office.
“Why isn’t that Office of Civil Rights on the ground [in Virginia Beach] like it was in Windsor?” Jones asked. “You can’t play politics with justice. We would have been there as soon as we found out.”
Those inconsistencies have also been a target for Republicans seeking to unseat Herring.
Leslie Haley, member of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors and longtime ethics and corporate lawyer, is among those seeking to reclaim the state’s top lawyer seat for the GOP after the state’s decade-long blue shift. She called Herring’s use of his office to investigate local police departments an overreach.
“There’s a lack of accountability and consistency out of his office,” she said in an interview. Haley also hit Herring for much of what he’s running on: the steps he’s taken which she considers to be political.
“The attorney general is supposed to be for the citizens of the state. It shouldn’t matter if they’re a Republican or a Democrat, they’re still held to the Constitution,” Haley said.
That’s not to say she hasn’t advocated for stances that those on the left would consider political. At a recent online debate hosted by gun rights group the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Haley was joined by three of the four GOP candidates and she spoke to what she argued was the unconstitutional nature of new gun laws passed by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
“If the Legislature passes laws that violate our constitutional rights, we’re going to stand tall and challenge them,” she said, rejecting measures like red-flag laws that allow local police departments to remove guns from homes over mental health concerns.
Virginia’s rural municipalities have come out strongly against gun restrictions, passing so-called Second Amendment sanctuary laws, though the mental health-related gun seizures have occurred frequently within their borders.
Haley and others have decried such laws and Democrats’ other efforts at criminal justice and election reform as an affront to Virginians’ constitutional rights.
“We’ve got to put strict controls in place that clearly recognize the AG’s office is not where laws get made but there’s a precedent with policy, with good conservative values, so we’ll act under the rule of law,” Haley said.
Another point of attack for the right has been a scandal over the state’s parole system involving some inmates being released without proper notice to victims’ families.
“The failure of his office to hold any accountability to the parole board is incredibly problematic,” Haley said of Herring.
Haley isn’t alone in her effort to oust Herring. Also seeking the GOP nomination are Virginia Beach-area Delegate Jason Miyares, former Navy JAG officer Chuck Smith and Jack White, an ordained minister and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Friday’s financial releases put Miyares in the lead with just over $500,000 raised, with Haley in last among all candidates with just over $100,000. Smith raised about $300,000 while White brought in about $200,000.
Haley said in a statement that early fundraising isn’t as important for the GOP attorney general primary race as the state party has decided to elect candidates through a disassembled convention. This process will feature several dozen voting locations for designated local party delegates to choose who will be their party’s nominee for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
But beyond the May 8 convention, Republicans face an uphill battle to beat Herring or Jones after Democrats select their candidate via statewide primary in June.
Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in Virginia in a decade, a trend that started with Herring and McAuliffe. Haley says this year’s GOP attorney general nominee, no matter who wins, will offer something different — whether it be experience or otherwise — to help them overcome the party’s losing streak, but Farnsworth is less sure.
“You don’t get to be the nominee if you don’t sing from the conservative Republican hymnal,” the professor said in a nod to the party’s platform of guns, God and the Constitution, all terms used by the AG candidates frequently during their debate appearances.
It is those same issues that led to defeat for former Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 gubernatorial race and hampered every statewide Republican since. They also failed for former President Donald Trump, who lost Virginia by five points in 2016 and 10 points last year.
But Farnsworth doesn’t count the GOP out just yet.
“Republican prospects for victory in the general election would probably be better if President Joe Biden’s team stumbles or if the Democratic nominee process becomes more combative,” he said. “But it may also turn on an issue that isn’t even on the agenda yet.”
“People run because there’s always a chance that things will end up favorable,” he added.