The mood among Virginia Republicans is grim these days. But if there's one bright spot for them on Tuesday, it's the thought of attorney general nominee Mark Obenshain.
As Democrats look to complete a historic sweep in the Old Dominion, the attorney general contest is an unusually big deal, with Democrat Mark Herring looking to complete the hat trick against Obenshain.
The race between the two men, both state senators, has been overshadowed by the higher-profile candidates at the top of the ticket.
That’s allowed Obenshain to run a more independent--and savvier--campaign than his ticketmates have, without their damaging soundbites and pock-marked reputations.
"Obenshain is the crown jewel of this ticket and has run a crisp, smart, aggressive campaign that took tactical risks with respect to how they advertised, and that paid off in terms of money," said national GOP strategist Phil Musser, a former executive director of the RGA. "All of us are hoping and praying that the macro climate doesn't swamp the Obenshain campaign."
The close race forced Herring and Democrats into frantically trying to convince commonwealth voters that the Republican would be a Cuccinelli clone; Herring ads have sought to tie Obenshain to the GOP gubernatorial candidate, noting their similar conservative records on social issues.
The last minute money has flowed to both candidates after the sudden burst of intensity in the race. As Democrats have pulled away in the top two races and the attorney general contest has stayed tight, money from both sides has shifted rapidly to the battle for the state’s top attorney. Obenshain has outraised Herring, $3.7 million to $2.3 million, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, and the Republican also outraised Cuccinelli in the final homestretch.
Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC put nearly $1.3 million in the race last week, hammering Obenshain on his support for a Personhood bill and opposition to closing the gun show loophole. Planned Parenthood has spent another $100,000 on ads, hitting Obsenshain on his opposition to abortion. The Democratic Party of Virginia has also released an ad pointing out that Obenshain voted for a controversial bill last year in that state legislature that would have required women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion.
The significance of the AG’s race isn’t lost on Democrats. If they win the trifecta on Tuesday, it will be the first time the party had heled all the state’s constitutional offices and both U.S. Senate seats since 1969.
“Traditionally the attorney general’s race is the hardest one for Democrats to win,” the state’s Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine told MSNBC at a Saturday door-knocking kick-off in Fairfax.
Kaine admitted that Obenshain has a different approach than Cuccinelli that’s helped him build his lead, but said strong Democratic turnout against the rest of the ticket could push Herring to victory.
“They have different styles, I'll grant them that,” the Democrat said of Obenshain & Cuccinelli. “Mark Obenshain is not personally as combative as Cuccinelli is, but his voting record is very much the same.”
The final Christopher Newport University poll of the race showed the two in a statistical tie, with Obenshain up 45%-43% among likely voters, aided by better results with key blocs Cuccinelli is losing. Herring leads among female voters, 45%-39%-- a much smaller gender gap than in the governor’s race, and Obenshain is actually winning independent voters by 15 points.
There’s likely to be heavy ticket splitting that could benefit Obenshain, too: 19% of his voters said they planned to vote for McAuliffe, and 19% also said they planned to vote for Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
Obenshain has built a far different coalition than either Cuccinelli or GOP candidate for lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson, as was clear on last week at a fundraiser that drew about 150 donors to the Vienna home of former Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who’s been critical of the sharp right turn his party’s taken in the changing state.
Cuccinelli’s name was barely uttered. Instead of Tea Party anger, there was a celebration of civility and moderation.
Headlining the event -- former Republican Sen. John Warner and former Democratic Attorney General Andy Miller, whose 1976 campaign against each other factors heavily in Obenshain’s own personal story. His father, Dick Obenshain, was the GOP’s nominee for Senate that year until he was killed in a plane crash campaigning around the state. Warner, who'd lost to Obenshain at the nominating convention, was asked by the elder Obenshain’s widow to take his place, and Warner narrowly beat Miller that fall, launching his three-decade long career.
Leaning on a cane as he spoke, Warner bemoaned the negativity that had taken over the airwaves, noting that in his battle with Miller, they “never pointed fingers, never used any negative advertising.”
“Mark Obenshain is ready to fight,” said Warner. “After four years, he’d be a viable candidate to move on [to national office].”
Miller, who has crossed party lines to endorse before and was the only speaker to openly praise Cuccinelli, said he believed the races across the ballot for the GOP were closing, pointing to a Quinnipiac poll that morning that showed Cuccinelli behind by only four points.
“I really believe that the momentum is in Mark’s favor,” said Miller.
Other GOP stalwarts were similarly optimistic, though more critical of Cuccinelli’s operation.
Former Lt. Gov. John Hager told MSNBC that Cuccinelli’s campaign “had some shortfalls” and didn’t do a good job of “putting down the mythology” on social issues -- but that Obenshain could still put one race in the GOP's "win" column.
“There are a lot of people that care about making sure that we win this race and how important this race is, and a lot of dedication to the Obenshain legacy,” said Hager.
At the same time Cuccinelli was being hammered on the airwaves, Obenshain used his daughter, Tucker, as not just his campaign driver around the state but as the face of his campaign. In a series of upbeat ads, she boasts of her dad’s work across party lines and talks about his efforts to combat child predators and curb sex trafficking.
CNU professor Quentin Kidd, who conducted the university’s poll, says he believes Obenshain's campaign realized early that with Cuccinelli and Jackson atop the ticket, a divisive tone "could crush them," and they made a wise strategic choice to run a different type of campaign, especially highlighting Tucker’s involvement.
“Obenshain is campaigning in a style a lot like Bob McDonnell,” said Kidd. “He’s not that different on issues, but his style, his presentation is much more amenable to people who might not agree with him on a lot of those issues. I think that’s purposeful.”
In an interview the next day in downtown Fairfax, Obenshain said he wasn’t surprised by the sudden Democratic barrage looking to scar him, but that he believed it was his more positive campaign that was making the difference statewide.
“We've run a campaign in which we have been disciplined, stuck to our message, talked about what I’m going to do as attorney general,” said Obenshain. “It's been a message that's been resonating and has been winning votes.”
“I’m running against a guy who's been running at 100% negative, 100% of the time,” Obenshain said. “I guess I ought to take it as a compliment that these outside groups are coming in and trying to steer the outcome of this election.
"Now Republicans are just pouring a ton of money into Obenshain's campaign hoping they can salvage one,” Herring told MSNBC in an interview Saturday morning, just before he joined McAuliffe on a statewide sweep on the last weekend of the race.
“They know that even if Cuccinelli loses and Obenshain wins, that Cuccinelli's policies can live on through him." said Herring. “Mark Obenshain is Ken Cuccinelli 2.0. His voting record is the same, if not worse in many ways.”
Herring said the outcome of his race would be critical for advancing women’s rights and gay rights, saying that if elected he would look at whether Virginia’s constitutional ban on gay marriage should still be upheld in wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions this summer that struck down California’s Proposition 8 measure.
“It does send a message everywhere, that in Virginia and elsewhere that the extreme social agenda, the Tea Party, ideological approach is not one that Virginians want and that other states can look at Virginia and be emboldened to go ahead and stand up and continue their effort to have more pragmatic results-oriented leadership,” said Herring.
It’s a message that Democratic heavyweights are hammering home too--and Herring got a shoutout from former President Bill Clinton as he made his four-day swing across the commonwealth with McAuliffe last week.
“This is a big deal,” Clinton said at a Herndon rally last Monday. “An attorney general can do much good and much harm. I dont think you want another attorney general like Cuccinelli.”
If the Democrats' get-out-the-vote operation can run up the McAuliffe’s margin, the biggest beneficiary will likely be Herring.
“It’s a tight race. I’m just hoping with all this turnout and get out the voter operation we have,” Herring can win, McAuliffe said in a press gaggle on Saturday morning in Fairfax before beginning a flyaround of the state with Herring and Kaine.
McAuliffe touted the 1.6 million doors Democrats have knocked on so far. “You gotta assume, I hope, that that will lift all boats.”