The two candidates in Virginia's attorney general race pulled no punches in a robust debate in Leesburg Friday morning, staking out positions that were nearly diametrically opposed to each other in their last meeting before the Nov. 7 election.
Incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring (D) defended his record as an aggressive challenger of attacks on health care and warned that challenger John Adams (R) is "fixated on conservative social issues" and seeks to "become the lawyer for the Republican caucus in Richmond."
Adams said it's Herring who is fixated on social issues, calling Herring's 2014 decision to join a lawsuit seeking to overturn Virginia's ban on gay marriage "unconscionable... indefensible," and argued that Herring "believes in centralized, government-run health care," while he believes in private insurance operating in the free market.
Herring told the 150 people at the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event that during his first term in office, under the leadership of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), life was good in the commonwealth: Unemployment dropped from 5.4 to 3.8 percent, 215,000 new jobs were created and $18.5 billion of new capital was invested in Virginia.
Those achievements were possible in part, Herring said, because the Democrats made sure the world knew people of all races, religions and gender identities are welcome in the state.
Adams accused Herring of inserting politics into the attorney general's office, and distorting his record on birth control.
"He says I want to roll back women's access to birth control. That is insane," Adams said, arguing that his pro-bono legal work for a religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and a business, Hobby Lobby, that didn't want to be forced to provide contraceptive services under the Affordable Care Act was about really religious liberty. "Guess what? We won. It was unconstitutional. That's what I fought for. I am not running to roll back anybody's rights," he said.
The race, which has attracted far less public attention than Virginia's closely watched gubernatorial contest, is the only attorney general election on the ballot in the country this November.
Both parties' associations of attorneys general have been pouring money into their candidates' campaign funds, including $775,000 that the Republican Attorneys General Association added Thursday to Adams's coffers, bringing its total investment in the race to more than $3.5 million. The Democratic Attorneys General group, Herring's top donor, has given him $1.75 million.
Herring, a Democrat from Leesburg, is aggressively challenging Trump administration policies: suing over the constitutionality of the president's first immigration ban; joining with other attorneys general in a lawsuit over Trump's decision to end federal subsidies to health insurers; and opposing the administration's move to end contraception coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.
The incumbent on Friday cited his work to eliminate the state's backlog of 3,000 untested rape kits, cracking down on gangs and gun violence, leading a award-winning Medicaid fraud unit and prosecuting child predators.
Adams — a politically conservative Richmond attorney and former federal prosecutor, clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and associate White House attorney under George W. Bush — charges that Herring should stick to the job of advising the General Assembly and defending state laws.
Regulatory overreach is "one of the biggest problems in this country," he said.
Adams said his personal beliefs — he is opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage and supports gun rights — would not influence his decisions as attorney general. While he would offer legal advice to the General Assembly, he says, he would defend the state's positions in court whether he agrees or not.
Adams sought to prove Herring has failed in the job, attacking his work on the opioid drug crisis by noting that deaths have risen in the past four years. He faulted Herring for giving pay raises to some lawyers in his office instead of spending the money for other needs.
"John wants you to think where he stands on issues isn't relevant to the job. Nothing could be further from the truth," Herring said. "Issues of choice, health care, gun safety, the fundamental rights of all Virginians will most certainly cross the desk of the next attorney general. It matters immensely where we stand on these issues."