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The down-ticket race between Mark Herring and Mark Obenshain has no clear leader.
Monday, October 14, 2013
While Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, has opened a lead over Republican rival Ken Cuccinelli outside the margin in recent polls, the contest for attorney general remains too close to call.
Just over three weeks before Election Day, both campaigns have little time left to highlight the contrasts between the two candidates and raise their profile among voters who traditionally lack substantial knowledge of the down-ticket choices.
In last week’s poll from Christopher Newport University, the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Mark R. Herring of Loudoun, received 45 percent of the vote, to 42 percent for state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain of Harrisonburg, the Republican nominee. That result was within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Earlier polls by the University of Mary Washington and Hampton University showed Obenshain with an equal or slightly higher advantage.
“The attorney general’s race is wide open, and neither campaign can afford to let up or make any mistakes,” said Quentin Kidd, director of CNU’s Wason Center for Public Policy.
Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that in the final weeks leading up to the election, Herring’s job is to establish firmly the linked Democratic ticket of McAuliffe-Northam-Herring in voters’ minds and to “drill down on Obenshain’s past legislative votes that women in particular will find questionable.”
Obenshain’s job is to “use his superior financial resources to continue making himself more acceptable than his running mates and better known than attorney general candidates usually are,” Sabato said.
Since his nomination after the Democratic primary in June, Herring has narrowed in on Obenshain’s close ties to Cuccinelli, who is polling far behind McAuliffe among women voters. Herring spokesman Kevin O’Holleran says what he calls the two Republicans’ “identical voting record on divisive social issues” in the state legislature may be “a fatal flaw” in Obenshain’s candidacy.
“Voters are beginning to understand that Senator Obenshain will be a continuation of the tea party approach of Ken Cuccinelli,” O’Holleran said. “Voters clearly reject that agenda, because it is extreme and out of the mainstream.”
But since his nomination at a statewide GOP convention in Richmond in May, Obenshain has worked hard to moderate his message, focusing on bipartisan mainstream issues such as jobs and public safety. As McAuliffe continues to gain momentum, Obenshain also touts his willingness to work with a Democratic governor.
“Mark Obenshain understands that as attorney general, his job will be to provide legal services and advice — not political advice,” said campaign spokesman Paul Logan. “Whoever is elected as the next governor, it is essential that we elect an attorney general who can bring to the office a spirit of professionalism and civility,” Logan said.
In spite of Herring’s attacks and organized efforts by liberal grassroots groups to paint Obenshain as a far-right extremist who would continue pushing Cuccinelli’s tea party agenda, the Republican’s consistent message of moderation seems to be working.
The recent CNU poll among 1,004 registered voters shows women voters are split evenly between the two candidates at 45 percent each.
“The Obenshain campaign appears to be avoiding a down-ticket backlash from female voters, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in this contest,” Kidd said.
Herring has a major advantage in the poll: a 22-point lead in vote-rich Northern Virginia. Obenshain leads by 14 points in Hampton Roads and by 10 points in Southwest/Southside. The candidates are statistically tied in the Richmond area.
Neither campaign takes territorial advantages for granted.
“Mark Obenshain is reaching out to voters in all parts of the state and believes that you can’t be effective either in campaigning or in representing the people of Virginia by writing off any region or community,” Logan said.
The Republican will continue to campaign aggressively in Northern Virginia — Herring’s home turf — over the next few weeks “with his message of safer communities and a stronger economy,” Logan said.
Herring follows a similar strategy. “In the final weeks of this campaign our tremendous group of volunteers working in every county and city will be on the phones and out knocking on doors,” O’Holleran said. “Our campaign is going to be taking our message of getting the politics out of office to every part of the commonwealth.”
The Democrat’s campaign also hopes to sway voters in the southwestern part of the state, traditionally a more conservative area, by tying Obenshain to Consol Energy.
In June, a federal judge said she was shocked to learn of emails from one of Cuccinelli’s assistant attorneys general offering advice to attorneys for two energy companies involved in a potential class-action litigation with Southwest Virginia property owners over natural gas rights.
One of the companies, Pennsylvania-based Consol Energy, is among Cuccinelli’s largest political donors, having provided more than $100,000 to the attorney general’s campaign over the past two years.
Cuccinelli’s office acknowledged that the tone of the emails was “overzealous” but vigorously denied any donor connection to the handling of the case, saying the office was simply defending Virginia law in its role as adviser to Virginia’s Gas and Oil Board.
Though Obenshain played no role in the controversy, Herring suggested that a $15,000 donation from Consol to the Republican’s campaign “is nothing more than a down payment … to continue the special treatment the company.”
Obenshain’s financial advantage — he had $819,899 on hand as of Aug. 31 to $488,776 for Herring — allows the Republican a visible television presence.
Obenshain reported $607,362 in contributions raised between July 1 and Aug. 31 as opposed to Herring, who raised $547,392 in the same reporting period.
The Republican’s three television ads prominently feature Obenshain’s 22-year-old daughter, Tucker, who has traveled with him since graduating from college.
The biggest challenge for both candidates is to raise their profile among the vast majority of Virginia voters who do not know about them.
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