Over the past 20 years, state attorneys general have become more and more important players in national politics. Republican attorneys general sued the Obama administration over Obamacare, energy policies, and immigration. Democratic attorneys general have sued the Trump administration over its temporary immigration ban.
The race for attorney general in Virginia — the only race for that position in any state this year — has therefore taken on an importance it would not have had in an earlier era. John Adams, the Republican nominee, is trying to defeat Mark Herring, the Democratic incumbent. It is a classic conservative vs. liberal contest, with the candidates divided over guns, the right to life, and religious liberty.
Adams has filed briefs in support of the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby. In a debate with Herring, he explained that he was defending religious liberty. “I have zero interest in limiting women’s access to birth control. None. It’s not an issue I think about. It’s not an issue I care about. I’m not limiting anybody’s access to birth control. It’s silly. Political talk. It’s silly.” Herring promptly sent out a fundraising appeal: “At our debate this morning, here’s what my opponent, John Adams, had to say about women’s access to birth control: ‘It’s not an issue I think about. It’s not an issue I care about.’”
Beyond their differences on hot-button issues, Adams says, lies a difference in the candidates’ conception of the job. “Virginia needs a lawyer,” Adams tells me over coffee. He says that Herring has seen his job as promoting liberal causes rather than representing the state. In 2006, when most Virginia Democrats were officially opposed to same-sex marriage, Herring was part of the 57 percent majority of the state that voted to put the traditional definition of marriage into the state constitution. When he became attorney general eight years later, Democratic sentiment had changed and he refused to defend the state constitution in federal court. Adams was disgusted. The attorney general has a duty to defend the state’s laws, he believes, even when he disagrees with those laws.
Herring was a state senator before running for attorney general. Adams has not run for anything before. But he is no political neophyte, having clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas and worked as an associate White House counsel for President George W. Bush.
The race might matter for another reason. During the Obama administration, conservatives who acted as their state’s lawyers became a united front against federal overreach. But their success led a lot of them to move up in the political world. Ted Cruz went from solicitor general of Texas to senator. President Trump tapped Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, to be director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Patrick Morrissey, West Virginia’s attorney general, is running for the Senate, and his Missouri counterpart, Josh Hawley, probably will as well. Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s attorney general, is expected to announce soon that he will run for governor. The downside of all this upward mobility is that there will be fewer top-flight conservative legal minds to lead the Republican attorneys general. It’s a role Adams could play, if he wins.
Commenting on the race for the Washington Post, Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said that its outcome would depend on that of the gubernatorial race: “Whichever gubernatorial candidate wins, depending on the margin of victory, most likely carries the down-ticket candidates with him to office.” It’s true that Adams’s fortunes are linked to those of Ed Gillespie, the Republican running for governor in Virginia. But in three of the last four Virginia elections, Republicans have done better in the race for attorney general than in the contest for governor. Adams might be able to win even if Gillespie does not, so long as the top of his ticket stays competitive. Gillespie is competitive, so Adams has a shot, and conservatives have a stake.