Politics & Policy

Meet the Virginia GOP’s ‘Saving Grace’

Mark Obenshain
While Cuccinelli struggles, Mark Obenshain is running quite well in the attorney general’s race.

The outlook for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli isn’t good, and lieutenant-governor candidate E. W. Jackson is in a similar tough spot, trailing consistently and having problems in his own party: Jackson’s only getting 81 percent of Republicans in the most recent Christopher Newport University poll.

But the attorney general’s race is a different story. There Republican Mark Obenshain has run no worse than even with Democrat Mark Herring, leading by 3 in the Roanoke College poll and by 1 in the CNU poll.

#ad#A 51-year-old three-term state senator from Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley, Mark Obenshain was, until recently, a little-known figure statewide. (Quinnipiac found his name ID increasing 25 points since August.) He’s enjoyed the endorsement of 59 sheriffs, including one Democrat and 25 independents. The Virginian-Pilot credited his “largely mistake-free, upbeat campaign” and the way he “stuck to issues he wants to discuss, agreed with Democrats’ call for a $100 gift limit amid an ethics reform furor, and focused on himself rather than relentlessly attacking Herring.”

Obenshain sat down with National Review’s Jim Geraghty on Tuesday to discuss his campaign, his goals, and the mood of the Virginia electorate.


Jim Geraghty: Over at National Journal there’s a headline, ”With Cuccinelli Failing, Mark What’s-His-Name Could Be the GOP’s Saving Grace.” It’s the most negative headline and positive headline at the same time. How does it feel to be seen as the “saving grace,” and what’s it been like to campaign largely in obscurity while there’s this clash-of-the-titans going on at the top of the ticket?

Mark Obenshain: It is the standard. There’s nothing really that unusual about it. During these statewide races, the governor’s race always sucks all of the oxygen out of the room, and nobody notices that there are down-ticket races until late September or October anyway. We knew that would be the case. We’ve been out there working hard laying the foundation during the course of the past year, two years. It’s hard, quiet work that hopefully pays dividends in the final days of the race, and we think that hard work is paying dividends.

None of the attorney-general races ever firm up until October. This is no different, and we’re pleased with where we stand right now.


Geraghty: Most of the polls have you tied with your rival, or ahead by a point or two, and you’re running even among women in most polls, while Ken Cuccinelli is in a rough spot right now, with a giant gender gap. Are you doing something right, or is it just that you haven’t had Terry McAuliffe’s television ads run against you? Should Republicans be looking at your campaign and saying, ”We should be doing more of that”?

Obenshain: I have no idea. I think you’ll have to talk to the talking heads and pundits and you guys can figure that out. We had a plan to run a positive, focused, disciplined, issue-oriented campaign. We’ve stuck to that plan. We haven’t let the opposition take us off message with their divisive, partisan, negative, false attacks. We’ve been able to do a lot of things pretty well and we’re pleased with where we sit.


GERAGHTY: What is the most consequential difference between you and your rival, Herring?

OBENSHAIN: There certainly are a lot of differences, and I think you see it in the kind of campaign we’ve run.

I’m out there talking about my vision, what I’m going to do as attorney general, keeping communities safe and keeping our economy strong, and my opponent’s talking about what a terrible guy I am. I can’t tell you how many people have told me how tired they are, how exhausted they are by all of the negative attacks. Yes, you have to draw distinctions, but there’s a difference between drawing distinctions, defining yourself, and the kind of negativism we’ve seen during the course of this campaign. I’m running the issue-oriented campaign, and the other side is running the attack campaign.

In terms of policy differences, I believe in the free market and our right-to-work laws. My opponent seems to believe in set-asides for organized labor, and doesn’t seem to mind imposing increased toll burdens on his constituents who may not be able to afford that.

My duty as attorney general is going to be to defend Virginia law, when it’s challenged, whether I agree with it or not. My opponent seems to believe he can pick and choose which challenges he wants to defend and substitute his judgment for the General Assembly, or in the case of constitutional amendments, the voters of Virginia. I think those are big differences in approach to the office of attorney general’s race.


GERAGHTY: Traditionally, campaigns for state attorney general include a big “law and order” element, a lot of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” rhetoric. This year Cuccinelli is running an ad touting his role in securing the release of a man wrongfully accused and convicted. It seems like on the right there’s been a bit of a shift away from the old rhetoric and tone. As you’re pursuing this job, do you look at the job differently than a generation ago, the pre-Giuliani-in-New-York days?

OBENSHAIN: I think there is a little bit of a different focus. There is no more important issue in the attorney general’s race than keeping communities safe. But that doesn’t always mean “lock ’em up and throw away the key.” It means “let’s pursue justice.” Justice sometimes means making those tough choices and abandoning a prosecution or an appeal because it doesn’t advance the ends of justice.

#ad#But by the same token, we’re also facing new and different challenges from criminal enterprises every day. It is incumbent upon us to equip law enforcement with tools necessary to effectively keep our communities safe. One of the trends we’re seeing, particularly here in northern Virginia, is in the area of sex trafficking. The Washington Post and Washingtonian magazine have done stories in the past few weeks highlighting that it isn’t just a problem in remote corners of the globe, it’s happening in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Organized crime, gangs, are finding that it’s more profitable to sell children for sex than it is to sell drugs, and the risk is less, too. We’ve got an obligation to step up and protect these kids. The average age of these children is 13, which means there are an awful lot of 11- and 12-year-old children out there that are being trafficked. There’s a moral imperative. These gangs are trolling high schools, middle schools, Facebook, malls. We’ve got to be aggressive in facing these challenges.


GERAGHTY: What have you learned from watching Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli in the job of attorney general, and what would you do similarly or differently?

OBENSHAIN: I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen a lot of attorneys general handle that job. I’m going to bring my own style. I’ve run two law firms. I was managing partner of a firm with about 70 employees. Managing law firms is not new to me, and handling ethics issues is not new to me.

In terms of previous occupants of the office, I can go back to Jerry Baliles, who was attorney general from 1982 to 1985, who brought a real sense of professionalism and a businesslike approach that is still present there. Jim Gilmore (1994–97) and Jerry Kilgore (2002–05) brought a focus on equipping the public-safety community with the tools to keep Virginians safe.

Bob McDonnell brought a focus on regulatory review and reform, and recognized the ability of the attorney general’s office to impact the regulatory environment in Virginia and our environment for creating jobs.

Ken Cuccinelli has been attorney general during a period when states across the country have had to adjust to a different relationship with the federal government. It’s been Democrats and Republicans who have faced those challenges. I look at each of those and I’ll draw on their strengths, but I’ll bring my own style and approach to the office.


GERAGHTY: Bob McDonnell received a lot of criticism for accepting a lot of expensive gifts from a donor and not reporting them. Are Virginia’s laws too lax on lawmakers’ accepting gifts? Do state lawmakers need to feel like the state attorney general is watching them like a hawk?

OBENSHAIN: First of all, yes, we need reform. It saddens me. Like a lot of Virginians, I liked to think that we were different, and the events of the past year show that’s not the case. We need to make sure our laws are sufficient to give voters the confidence that our elected officials are there to serve them, not to serve their own personal interests.

I’ve offered my own ethics-reform proposals. I think we need to cap gifts to lawmakers and statewide elected officials. I’ve suggested capping it at $100 per year per individual, and applying that to members of the household. I think the attorney general’s office has an important role in providing training on this throughout state government.

I think we ought to enhance transparency in the attorney general’s office, and make sure that the voters and media can see and understand the procurement process and see the terms of how outside counsel is retained. We spend tens of millions of dollars on outside counsel, that’s a big patronage position — and we need to make sure that’s open and transparent. We probably do need to look at the adequacy of penalties and the process for pursuing those who would violate the ethics laws.

If I’m elected attorney general, I’m going to be the chief personnel officer in that office, we’re going to apply those limits to that office, and I’ll voluntarily submit to those limits, irrespective of what the General Assembly does. Voters expect us to do something about the events of the past year, and if we don’t do something, we will feel their wrath.


GERAGHTY: Virginia passed a law requiring abortion clinics to be treated like any other medical facility regarding inspections, building regulations, and so on. Terry McAuliffe made a statement that he would issue a “guidance opinion” to the state board of health, permitting existing abortion clinics to remain open, even if they don’t meet the new regulations. Some charged that McAuliffe was inventing a new power for the governor that doesn’t exist in current law. As potentially the next state attorney general, does a governor have that kind of authority? Do you know what McAuliffe was talking about?

OBENSHAIN: (laughing) It’s hard to say. I don’t know exactly what he was talking about. Maybe he misspoke or meant to refer to something else.

#ad#My job is going to be to step up and help make sure that my client, the Commonwealth of Virginia, every department, agency, board, and commission, complies with the law, state and federal.

I may not always have personal agreement with the direction my client wants to go, but I can’t pick and choose which laws I like and which laws I don’t like. The governor is going to have power to take certain actions and he’s going to take them whether I like those actions or not. I’ll call balls and strikes. I’m not there to substitute my judgment for that of the members of the General Assembly.


GERAGHTY: This year the Virginia Republican party selected its statewide candidates with a convention instead of a primary, and there have been some recriminations about that. Should the state Republican party shift back?

OBENSHAIN: I’ve got great respect for the process. We have done well in some years where we’ve selected through primaries, and we’ve done poorly in some years where we’ve selected through primaries. And the same goes for conventions.

As I entered this process, I certainly appreciated that I didn’t have to spend the resources that would have been required in a primary, just to fight another Republican. I’d rather spend the resources fighting my real philosophical foes. So that’s an advantage. But then again, [with a primary] you certainly have an advantage by broadening the number of folks, the universe that selects a candidate.

I’ve worked hard to get party registration in Virginia. If we had party registration, you would eliminate some of the concerns of the folks who object to primaries. We have a long, not-so-proud history of meddling in each other’s processes.


GERAGHTY: What’s the mood of Virginia voters right now? It feels like our economy isn’t quite in a crisis, but there’s a lot of economic anxiety out there.

OBENSHAIN: In my race, people are asking me, “What are you going to do to keep my community safe and what are you going to do keep our economy strong?” There is great unease about the situation over on the other side of the Potomac. Whether it’s the shutdown or sequestration, those pose a particularly big threat to the strength of our economy here in Virginia, and that makes it all the more important for us to continue to do the things right that have made us the number-one state to do business, as Forbes magazine said.

That means keeping our regulatory burden low, to continue to enjoy the benefits of our right-to-work law here in Virginia, and when the federal government, the EPA, or somebody else steps over the line, abuses the statues in a manner that hurts jobs, to push back and fight. Those are things that, broadly speaking, people have responded to in the course of this campaign.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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