The way the Virginia campaigns are going, state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, the GOP contender for state attorney general, may be the only Republican elected statewide for quite some time. Virginia’s two U.S. senators don’t have any competition in sight, and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II and the ultra-controversial E.W. Jackson trail in the governor and lieutenant governor races.
I sat down with Obenshain in Northern Virginia Wednesday afternoon. With him was his 22-year-old daughter, Tucker, who is his driver (logging 80,000 miles with her father), travel companion and TV ad participant. “She a great sounding board,” Obenshain said. “It helps to have a 22-year-old female at my side.” That’s a telling distinction in image between him and other statewide GOP candidates, who are struggling with women voters and are easily painted as firebrands.
He is closest in temperament to the man who didn’t run for governor, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. While other Republicans running for statewide office are fiery and aggressive, Obenshain is sober and calm. Obenshain speaks in measured tones. He didn’t even mention his opponent until the end of the interview, when I asked him to distinguish himself from Mark Herring.
In a recent Christopher Newport University poll, Obenshain is tied with his opponent among women, prompting the director of the policy center that put out the poll to remark, “The Obenshain campaign appears to be avoiding a down-ticket backlash from female voters, but there is still a lot of uncertainty in this contest.”
Obenshain’s success depends in large part on his ability to get voters to split their tickets, that is to delink his image and campaign from the Cuccinelli and Jackson races. “Virginians take a good, informed look at the three offices, ” he said. “It makes my life easier if Ken wins . . . but history shows in 2005, 2001 and 1993 there was a lot of delinking.”
One way Obenshain is trying to distinguish himself from the other races and his opponent is by focusing on the nuts and bolts of the attorney general’s job. “People across Virginia expect the attorney general to focus on crime and keeping Virginians safe.” And in an election season dominated by economic issues, he said, “Everybody understands [crime reduction] has a fundamental role in keeping the economy strong.” He has rolled out a stream of initiatives on preventing elder abuse, combating human trafficking and ethics reform.
The latter stems, of course, from the gift scandal that enveloped the current governor and, to a lesser extent, Cuccinelli. Obenshain told me, “Virginians expect their elected officials to be serving the public’s interests, not their own interests.” He’s recommended a $100-per-year gift limit for legislators and statewide office holders, a limit that also would apply to all household members. In the attorney general’s office, he wants greater transparency with regard to the engagement of outside counsel. “We can do better with procurement,” he said.
I asked him whether he would favor revising the state’s campaign finance laws, which allow unions, corporations and individuals to give unlimited amounts. On this, he voiced a traditional conservative objection, “What we’ve got from contribution limits . . . is a robust opportunity for election lawyers.” With all the third-party operations that have been set up, he argued, “We have no idea who’s influencing [federal elections]. In Virginia, there is no incentive for hiding contributions. If anything, we may need to have more frequent reporting.”
Cuccinelli, as attorney general, made a name battling the feds on everything from Obamacare to federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations involving storm water. Obenshain set out a middle ground. “We’ve got to be mindful of the impact of federal issues on Virginia’s economy,” he tell me. “But you can’t pick a fight on every issue that presents itself.” Obenshain is most concerned about EPA coal regulations that have a dramatic impact on the economy of this coal-producing state. “It is pretty clear the regulations violate the Clean Air Act. Sens. [Joe] Manchin (D-W.Va.) and [Mary] Landrieu (D-La.) agree it exceeds the EPA’s authority.”
The federal government shutdown is a stark reminder that national politics is different from Virginia politics, which are remarkably civil and avoid paralyzing gridlock. To steer clear of that sort of dysfunction, Obenshain said, “takes work, takes effort.” He pointed to his own record of bipartisanship with Democrats in the state Senate. “We [Republicans] govern best and win elections when we cross party lines. Ninety-five percent of what we do has nothing to do with parties or politics.”
I asked the experienced lawyer what’s the closing argument for his candidacy. He said, “Who’s talking about what their vision is about serving as attorney general? I’m out there talking every day. I’ve rolled out initiatives.” He said his opponent is out “running a hyper-partisan campaign.” After reeling off a list subjects he’d address as state attorney general, from preserving right-to-work laws to prevention of elder abuse, he said, “What’s important are the bread-and-butter issues that will affect people’s lives.”
Because of the widespread disgust with candidates running highly partisan and nasty campaigns at the top of the ticket, such a remark stands out in a sea of negativity.