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Sen. Mark Obenshain, criticized by some for his conservative record, is campaigning on a bipartisan message.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, is the Republican nominee for Virginia attorney general.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
In the almost four months since his nomination as the Republican candidate for attorney general, Mark Obenshain has logged thousands of miles traveling Virginia, trying to build coalitions to push him across the finish line in November.
The state senator from Harrisonburg, often criticized by his political foes for his conservative legislative record, has handed out more than one olive branch to win the support of moderate Republicans, independents and even some conservative Democrats.
He touts a bipartisan message: keeping Virginia safe; standing up for children, seniors and victims of human trafficking; and making sure that the economy remains strong through aggressive regulatory review and reform.
“I believe that the principles and policy positions that I have laid out in the course of my campaign are mainstream Virginia principles and values,” Obenshain said in an interview at his mother Helen’s Richmond home, with his golden retriever, Jessie, at his feet.
But if you ask his opponents, the Mark Obenshain running for attorney general is very different from the Mark Obenshain who has served in the state Senate since 2004.
State Sen. Mark Herring of Loudoun, Obenshain’s Democratic opponent, paints him as an extremist who, in Herring’s view, would continue Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s quest to preserve Virginia’s traditional values and resist social change, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“Mark Obenshain votes like E.W. Jackson [the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor] speaks,” Herring said during the first attorney general debate in Virginia Beach in July, and it was meant to sound like a warning.
In 2005, state Sen. Russell Potts , R-Winchester, who ran for governor that year as an independent, lumped Obenshain in with a group of Republican “zealots who try to impose their beliefs on others.”
But if elected, Obenshain says he wants to check his legislative ideas and personal convictions at the door to the attorney general’s office.
“I make this transition every year,” said Obenshain, a former managing partner of one of Virginia’s 50 largest law firms, with nearly 70 employees, and a founding partner of a new firm with offices in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg.
“I leave Richmond at the end of February, and I go back to advising my clients. When you take a look at the job of the attorney general and the duty to defend Virginia law, I’ve been very clear where I’m coming from and what I am going to do.
“My job is not to substitute my judgment for the voters of Virginia and for the General Assembly,” Obenshain said.
Some political analysts think Obenshain’s attempt to separate his legislative record from the job he seeks might not sway more moderate voters who are wary of his social conservatism.
“This rationale will work with some, and there is truth to the idea that attorneys must leave as much of their biases out of their legal work as possible,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“[But] here’s the problem: The attorney general is an elected position. It is political by nature, and the voters make choices based on the views of the candidates. They expect the winning candidate to carry out his platform, which is based in part on his party label and ideological views,” Sabato said.
“In sum, we don’t elect a legal technician when we vote for attorney general, we are making partisan and policy choices,” he said.
The Cuccinelli factor
Besides his legacy as a state senator, Obenshain’s biggest hurdle on the path to the attorney general’s office may be to convince voters that he is not like Cuccinelli, the incumbent attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, whom Democrats accuse of using the powers of his office based on his own moral convictions.
“Rightly or wrongly, many voters see Cuccinelli — and probably past attorney generals, too — as having acted on some issues with a partisan or ideological motive. Not all issues, but some issues,” Sabato said.
Obenshain, however, draws a clear distinction between himself and the current attorney general.
“Ken has his style; I’ve got my own style,” he said. “I’m going to come into the office and focus on my own priorities.”
Though Obenshain has shied from addressing social issues since his nomination, he has found himself answering for some of his running mates’ inflammatory remarks.
“I think that people are going to make their own judgment based on the individual candidates and their merits,” Obenshain said. “There are a lot of things that any of us candidates say that other people may disagree with, even our friends.”
Defending his record
Obenshain said some of his foes’ attacks on his legislative record are not rooted in reality and are at times unfair.
Take the criticism of his 2009 miscarriage bill, which would have required a woman who had a miscarriage without medical attendance to report it to authorities within 24 hours or face penalties. The bill, said Obenshain, was a request by Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha L. Garst, who struggled with the case of a college student who had thrown her newborn baby in a Dumpster, claiming it had been dead at birth.
Obenshain said Garst asked him to draft legislation that would protect newborn babies. He then asked attorneys in the Department of Legislative Services to write the bill. After reviewing the measure with members of Planned Parenthood, it was decided that it could not be amended and narrowed to achieve the desired result.
“Before the first hearing was held, I struck the bill from the docket,” Obenshain said.
“My opponent knows the backstory,” he said. “They know I would never support a bill that would require a woman to report a miscarriage. I understand that this is the political game that is played, but it is not true.”
What is true is that Obenshain sponsored several key measures that Gov. Bob McDonnell signed this year, including one barring circuit court clerks from disclosing who has a concealed-handgun permit and another — which takes effect in 2014 — that will require voters to present a photo ID at the polls.
Obenshain rejects protests from Democrats, who said the voter ID bill — which he first introduced in 2005 — would disenfranchise minority voters.
“This is something that improves the integrity of our system,” he said. “In the early 2000s, it was Democrats who were complaining about the lack of requirement for photo IDs. Now it’s Republicans who are complaining. What we hear are concerns based upon whose ox has been gored most recently.”
In 2011, Obenshain voted for a bill that requires women to have an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion. His support further manifested his reputation among Democrats as a stark social conservative.
But his wife, Suzanne, rejects the notion that her husband is anti-woman, as several liberal women’s rights groups have suggested.
“He wants to defend a woman’s rights, and he wants to make our children safe,” she said. “I’m proud of his record. I don’t think he’s against women at all.”
Suzanne Obenshain met her future husband in 1980 at a gathering of the College Republicans at Virginia Tech, where they were freshmen. She said it was his passion for politics and his ambition to run for attorney general in the future that attracted her.
“I knew when I married him that, one day, we would be making this journey,” she said. Though it was Obenshain’s dream, he allowed his wife to determine the timing. That time had come when their two children — Tucker and Sam — had gone off to college.
A father’s legacy
Obenshain says it may have been his father’s legacy that first ignited the fire of politics in his heart.
Richard “Dick” Obenshain unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1964 and for attorney general in 1969. But he became the state GOP chairman in 1972 and is now widely seen as the architect of Virginia’s modern conservative Republican Party.
In June 1978, the elder Obenshain edged John Warner to win the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. But he never lived to see Election Day. Richard Obenshain died at 42 when the small plane in which he was traveling crashed at Chesterfield County Airport on Aug. 2, 1978.
Although he never held public office, the state GOP headquarters in Richmond is called the Richard D. Obenshain Center in his memory, a testament to his influential role in Virginia politics.
His son, who was 16 at the time of his father’s death, said he has modeled his own campaign after his father’s Senate bid.
“What he was able to do was build a coalition that the Republican Party worked really hard to craft itself around, that included a lot of independents and a lot of conservative Democrats in Virginia,” Obenshain said.
“He didn’t change for one group versus another. As I have been campaigning, I have been articulating the same visions for Virginia.”
Mark Obenshain’s sister, Kate, also has carried on their father’s legacy. A conservative commentator, she was the first woman to lead the state Republican Party, serving as chairman from 2002 to 2006. She later served as Sen. George Allen’s chief of staff.
The road ahead
The next seven weeks remain a long and rocky road for Obenshain. As of the last reporting period, he had a financial advantage.
But Obenshain must navigate around the murky waters of the Star Scientific scandal that has engulfed McDonnell and threatened Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli accepted $18,000 in gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams — a development that brought further scrutiny to the GOP ticket.
As Democrats touted their proposals for reforms of Virginia’s ethics laws, Obenshain could have been a ringleader — but he remained mostly mum. Only when asked about Herring’s plan for reform did Obenshain say he’d support a ban on gifts to elected officials exceeding a $100 threshold.
Republicans hope Obenshain will save them from a wipeout if Cuccinelli and Jackson lose, Sabato said.
“This is exactly what has been on Obenshain’s mind and why he is trying to moderate,” Sabato said. “It’s a shrewd tactic but also breathtaking, if you look at Obenshain’s voting record.
“His rhetoric has become kinder and gentler, but his Senate floor and committee votes have been very conservative, pretty close to Cuccinelli’s stands, in fact.”
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