Herring sought to align Obenshain with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, and to Republican lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson. Herring told the audience that he and Obenshain “could not be more far apart” ideologically.
Obenshain appeared surprised by the attacks but pushed back, saying Herring would try to interject his own politics into the office.
“Our responsibility as attorney general is to step up and not be the lawmaker, not be a federal judge,” Obenshain said. “We are charged with making sure we defend, where appropriate, state laws.”
Aside from their roles as senators and their first names, the candidates appeared to have little in common during the hour-long debate sponsored by the Young Lawyers Conference at the Cavalier Hotel.
The attorney general’s office is an important one in Virginia politics as one of three statewide posts that frequently has been a launching pad for a gubernatorial bid or other higher offices. A Democrat has not won the attorney general’s seat in 20 years.
Herring is running on the Democratic ticket with gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe and lieutenant governor candidate state Sen. Ralph S. Northam of Norfolk.
On a question of stricter gun laws in the wake of the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., Herring said he supports expanding background checks. He accused Obenshain of being “consistently opposed” to them — a charge Obenshain denied.
“We need to make sure guns are out of the hands of those that should not have them,” Obenshain said. “But imposing further restrictions on law-abiding citizens is not the solution.”
Herring called Obenshain’s response “an excuse.”
“We need to close the gun-show loophole,” Herring said. “You’ve been consistently opposed to that. You’re standing in the way.”
On the issue of same-sex marriage, Obenshain accused Herring of changing his stance for political reasons and not on principle. Both candidates voted for an amendment in 2006 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
“Almost eight years ago I did vote that way,” Herring said. “But you know what? Since that time, I’ve talked to my friends, my constituents, talked to co-workers, talked to my family. And like millions of Americans and a lot of Virginians, I don’t believe that way anymore. So I support marriage equality.”
Obenshain said he continues to oppose same-sex marriage based on his faith.
“It’s easy to stand up now and say I stand for something else,” Obenshain said. “We both voted for it. . . . I guess we are entitled to change those opinions on the basis of which office we’re seeking.”