Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) stepped into the dispute over who will be Virginia's next attorney general Monday by offering to provide both candidates with state office space to plan their transitions.
Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), who has a lead of 446 votes out of 1.94 million cast last Tuesday, had said he intended to occupy the office space meant for the winner's transition activities. His Democratic opponent, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), called that "totally premature."
The clash over office space highlighted tensions in both major political parties as attorneys for Deeds and McDonnell braced for a recount in one of Virginia's closest elections.
When Virginians went to bed election night, Deeds was leading McDonnell by about 1,500 votes. By morning, however, further counting had pushed McDonnell up by about the same amount. Since then, McDonnell's lead has dropped as local election officials have finalized their tallies.
McDonnell now leads Deeds by 0.03 percentage points. Under state law, a candidate who lags by 1 percentage point or less can request a recount Nov. 28, when the State Board of Elections certifies a result.
"I'm very confident that the recount procedure is going to run smoothly because the Virginia legislature had the foresight to require a specific procedure on how to conduct a recount," said Jean Jensen, secretary of the elections board.
By law, the state, for $99,000, provides office space, phones, copiers, computers and other services to the winning attorney general candidate.
Janet Polarek, the campaign manager for McDonnell, said his staff intends to move into the Ninth Street Office Building in Richmond on Wednesday morning. "We have 60 days to get our entire staff hired, all Bob's legislative agenda prepared and ready to go," she said. "We can't wait until the first week of January."
Deeds said the election is too close to declare a victor.
"That guy has got to do what he thinks he needs to do," Deeds said of McDonnell at a news conference. "Perhaps it makes him feel better. Tell him not to waste any money on paint."
Deeds and McDonnell are former prosecutors, and each has served in the Virginia General Assembly for 14 years. The men largely agree on public safety reforms, including efforts to strengthen punishments for sex offenders, but they disagree on some social issues. For example, McDonnell is a leader in the state's anti-abortion movement, and Deeds has said abortion should remain legal.
Late in the day, Warner's aides said the governor had decided to make space available for both candidates.
The conflict recalls one between George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, and Vice President Al Gore after the 2000 presidential election.
On Nov. 27, 2000, Bush announced that Dick Cheney would lead his transition efforts and that he would occupy the government's designated transition space. But President Bill Clinton refused to make the space and $5.3 million available, prompting Bush to use private money for office space in McLean. Bush opened his private transition office Nov. 30.
The last close statewide election in Virginia was in 1989, when L. Douglas Wilder (D) beat Marshall Coleman (R) for governor by about 7,000 votes. A recount was conducted at a cost of $69,058.73, Jensen said. Local governments bear the cost of a recount if the loser is within half of 1 percentage point.
Polarek said Monday that the votes are not likely to change. "All the local canvasses are complete, all of the results are in, and Bob McDonnell has clearly won this race," she said.
Deeds said the vote total could continue to change until the state Board of Elections certifies the results.
"It's the right thing to do to make sure that all the votes are counted," Deeds said. "The numbers could continue to juggle between now and Nov. 28."
Jensen said the vote totals have changed in the past week as local election officials caught minor mistakes that changed the tallies slightly.
In one jurisdiction, for example, an election official had recorded the votes for Deeds and McDonnell in the wrong columns, Jensen said. In other cases, some paper ballots were not initially counted. Some simple math mistakes were made, she said.
Jensen said her staff will continue double-checking until Nov. 28.
"Our staff is going over absolutely everything," she said.