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Virginia Attorney General and GOP Challenger Square Off in First Debate

Incumbent Democrat Mark Herring and Republican state lawmaker Jason Miyares argued over everything from guns to voting rights in the hour-long virtual debate.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Two candidates for Virginia’s top cop office sparred over gun laws, voting rights and a host of other issues in an online debate hosted by the Virginia State Bar on Tuesday afternoon. 

Incumbent Democrat Mark Herring, hoping to win a third term as attorney general, faced off against Virginia Beach-area Republican Delegate Jason Miyares as the two traded barbs and repeated slogans that got them over the primary finish line in their first general election debate. 

“There’s a clear contrast between my record of expanding rights and conservative activist Jason Miyares,” said Herring.

He pointed to his support for expanding gun restrictions, LGBTQ rights, marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform – all issues he claimed Miyares voted against during his ongoing tenure as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates – as reasons he should keep his job.  

“Jason Miyares is wildly out of step on the issues that matter most to Virginians,” he said. 

Miyares, however, harped on the state’s rising crime and murder rates as a sign of Herring’s failures. 

“Mark Herring has forgotten our victims,” he said. “He’s pushing a criminal-first mindset. The attorney general is the top cop in the state, and he’s failed.” 

Virginia State Bar President Marni E. Byrum moderated Tuesday's hour-long debate. She peppered the candidates with a range of questions, including on their interests in the expansion of health care access under the Affordable Care Act. 

“I’ve spoken to Virginians who are worried that protections for preexisting conditions will go away,” Herring said, pointing to the 500,000 Virginians who gained health coverage when the state passed Medicaid expansion in 2019, a controversial vote just before Republicans lost their majority in the General Assembly.

The incumbent also warned of the Trump administration’s effort to roll back the ACA and its protections for preexisting conditions.

“This is too important for us to let go,” he said. “Miyares would work to take away your health care.”

But the Republican challenger said he voted against the 2019 Medicaid expansion because he would have preferred a different version that attached a work requirement to get the taxpayer-funded benefit. 

“This shows a different philosophy between us,” Miyares said. “We’re going to have you work for it.”

Miyares said the health care expansion has led to higher fiscal burdens on the state, an increase from 5% to 20% of the state’s budget.

“That’s less money for your schools and cops in your neighborhoods,” he said. 

Election laws were also a hotly debated topic. Unlike Republican-led states around the country, Virginia took steps to open access to voting in the last year, something Herring said he’d continue to champion.  

“Miyares would have filed a lawsuit to overturn the [Virginia] election to perpetuate the big lie,” he said, before he suggested putting a Republican in office would be akin to putting the state’s legal guidance into the “hands of a foot soldier of [former President Donald] Trump and Senator Ted Cruz.”

Miyares meanwhile argued the 2020 election left voters with more questions than answers. 

While Virginia rolled back voting ID laws as part of recent Democratic efforts to expand access, he argued such requirements were not too much of a burden to impose on those wishing to cast a ballot. 

“If you need an ID to get on a plane or a vaccine, you should need one to vote,” he said. 

The candidates’ support for expanding or rolling back gun control laws was also questioned. 

Herring has long been an advocate for more limits on firearm access, and he pointed to the state’s red-flag law as an example of a campaign promise he delivered. 

“We have a gun violence problem in this country and the status quo is not acceptable,” he said. 

Miyares, by contrast, said steps taken by Herring and his Democratic allies in Richmond to release inmates during the coronavirus pandemic were more dangerous than any “innocent Virginian with a gun.”

“The biggest way to lower gun violence is going after violent criminals, repeat offenders, and getting them off the streets,” he said, stressing his background as a prosecutor gave him unique insight into the process.

The state lawmaker also tried to link Herring to a scandal involving the coronavirus-driven release of some prisoners, which violated policy norms but has yet to lead to any significant policy changes or criminal charges for members of the state's parole board.

"When I was growing up in Virginia, life without parole meant you didn't get out," Miyares said before telling the story of former inmate Vincent Martin, who spent 40 years in jail for shooting and killing a police officer before being released last spring.

"Vincent Martin got released by the parole board and whose the parole board's lawyer? Mark Herring," he argued.

"I don’t sign off on parole board decisions,” Herring responded.

Miyares also repeated a familiar story of his Cuban mother’s immigration to America, claiming the violations on her rights by a communist regime is something Virginians would see if Democrats continued to hold power. 

“What separates us from most of the people on the planet is this right here,” he said before knocking on the table in a bit he’s used to illustrate what it would sound like if the state’s Democratic trifecta remained: coming in the dead of night to take away your rights. 

Herring, as he did in pre-primary appearances, stressed his early support for same-sex marriage, refusing to defend the state’s ban on the practice when it was challenged in the courts. 

“I was right,” he said of the eventual win at the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down state bans on gay marriage nationwide. “It put us on the right side of history and the right side of the law.”

Virginia's general election is Nov. 2, 2021.

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