This fall’s attorney general election in Virginia is looking like a referendum on incumbent Ken Cuccinelli. (David Crigger/AP)

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II isn’t running for reelection, but the Republican gubernatorial candidate is casting a long shadow in the race to replace him.

On the campaign trail, Republican candidates seeking to become the state’s top lawyer are embracing Cuccinelli as an example of how they would approach the job, while Democrats running in next month’s primary say he has too often inserted politics into policy.

“This is the first attorney general race that I know of that is likely to be a referendum on the current attorney general,” said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. “The Republican candidate will be linked to Cuccinelli. The Democratic message is going to be, ‘We’re not Cuccinelli.’ ”

On Saturday, Republicans will gather in Richmond to nominate candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general at a state party convention. For attorney general, more than 13,500 delegates will choose between Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albermarle), a former state prosecutor, and state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), whose family has a long history in Old Dominion politics.

To Obenshain and Bell, the federal health-care law and the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to regulate storm water as a pollutant are examples of government overreach.

Bell says on his Web site that he helped Cuccinelli draw up the state’s position against the health-care law, and he has called the attorney general’s legal challenge an example of how the office can fight for “Virginia’s constitutional prerogatives.”

“He is not the only attorney general to do it, but he has certainly led the way,” said Bell, who was elected in 2001 to the House of Delegates. “That’s an obligation of the attorney general’s office. . . . You have the legal firepower and the standing to take those cases on.”

Obenshain praised Cuccinelli as one of several attorneys general who have fought against “overreaching federal government.”

Obenshain, a lawyer who was elected to the state Senate in 2003, said public service was a mission handed down to him by family members. His sister, Kate, was the first woman to chair the Republican Party of Virginia. His father, Richard Obenshain, is regarded as the architect of Virginia’s modern Republican Party.

Richard Obenshain ran an unsuccessful campaign for state attorney general in 1969, and he was a rising star in the party when he died in a plane crash in 1978 while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. Mark Obenshain, who was 16 when his father died, said he remains motivated by his father’s legacy.

“I’m proud of the work that my dad did . . . and to the extent that we are working for and have worked for shared goals and principles, that’s something I certainly embrace,” Obenshain said.

Democrats will choose their nominees in a June 11 primary, and they hope to reclaim the attorney general’s office for the first time since Mary Sue Terry was elected in 1985. The candidates for attorney general are former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax and state Sen. Mark R. Herring (Loudoun).

At a recent forum for voters at the Gay Community Center of Richmond, instead of emphasizing the differences between them, the two Democratic candidates held up Cuccinelli as divisive and dangerous in hopes of energizing turnout among blue voters in the fall.

“Ken Cuccinelli has been one of the worst attorneys general, not only in the history of Virginia, but in the United States,” Fairfax said. “He has taken us backward in so many ways.”

Herring offered similar remarks and tied the two Republicans in the race to Cuccinelli. “They represent the most extreme, conservative Republicans,” Herring said of Bell and Obenshain. “We cannot afford to have another attorney general like the one we have.”