Mark Herring’s victory in Virginia confirms Democrats’ advantage in statewide races


Virginia Attorney General-elect Mark Herring appears at a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol in Richmond. (Steve Helber/AP)
Robert McCartney
Columnist December 18, 2013

Democrat Mark Herring’s victory in the exceedingly close Virginia attorney general’s race, which Republican Mark Obenshain conceded Wednesday, ought to end any debate about two key questions regarding politics in the Old Dominion.

First, in statewide elections, it’s now beyond doubt that Democrats start with a significant advantage. It turns out the 2009 GOP landslide, led by Gov. Bob McDonnell, was an exception fueled by the initial, tea party-led backlash against President Obama.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Since then, Democrats have won five straight statewide elections: for president and U.S. Senate in 2012, and for governor, lieutenant governor and now attorney general in November. Democrats hold every statewide elective office for the first time since 1969.

“In a statewide election, this is a state with a bluish tint. Republicans can win, but they can’t win easily,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political commentator.

Minority and immigrant voters, who tend to support Democrats, are growing as a share of the electorate. Populous suburbs such as Fairfax County, which used to be up for grabs, are now reliably blue. Those that once leaned red, such as Prince William and Loudoun, now lean the other way.

“Democrats are doing far better with emerging voting blocs than Republicans are,” Holsworth said.

Second, to be competitive, the GOP needs to nominate candidates with more moderate views, especially on social issues. Republican support for low taxes and less government regulation is popular. But the GOP loses many voters because of its positions on issues such as abortion and immigration.

The party should pick its nominees via primaries rather than conventions. The latter are typically dominated by grass-roots activists with hard-line views.

Obenshain, a state senator from Harrisonburg, was supposed to be the Republican candidate most likely to win and prevent a Democratic sweep this year. He comes from a distinguished Virginia political family. He wasn’t as controversial as the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, or its candidate for lieutenant governor, preacher E.W. Jackson.

Furthermore, the GOP had a built-in advantage competing for a law-and-order position like attorney general. The Republicans have held the post since 1994.

Obenshain made it close. When he conceded, he was behind by about 800 votes out of 2.2 million cast.

He lost primarily because the Democrats were able to link his views to those of Cuccinelli, especially on social issues. A Herring ad pictured Obenshain riding in the same car as Cuccinelli. The Democrats called attention to Obenshain’s sponsorship of a bill that would have required women to report miscarriages to police within 24 hours.

Obenshain also seemed out of the mainstream because he opposed the historic, bipartisan transportation tax deal championed by McDonnell and House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell (R-Stafford).

Republican Tom Davis, a former U.S. congressman from Fairfax, said the 2013 election “should be a wake-up call” for his party. He blamed its right wing for insisting on a convention that nominated candidates who couldn’t appeal to moderates.

“It was a rebuke of the Republicans,” Davis said. “They lost it because they have a very exclusionary process for recruiting candidates. They do not understand the changing demographics of the state, and they’re not talking about issues that people care about.”

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the Democrats’ victories in statewide races do not mean Virginia has become thoroughly blue. Far from it.

That’s because Republicans still do very well overall in elections in individual legislative districts. The GOP holds sizable majorities in both the House of Delegates and in Virginia’s U.S. House delegation.

The discrepancy occurs partly because Democratic turnout is comparatively weak in off-year elections. It’s also because the GOP has successfully gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts in its favor.

As a result, Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D) will have to seek compromises with a solidly Republican House of Delegates in order to pass any bills. He already faces an uphill battle on one of his top priorities, which is expanding Medicaid to take full advantage of the president’s health-care reforms.

The GOP’s advantage in the House can restrain the Democrats’ agenda for now. If the Republicans wish to advance their own, however, they’ll have to win the top offices. On some issues, that will require a shift toward the center.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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