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Republican Jason S. Miyares maintains narrow lead in Va. race for attorney general

Republican Del. Jason S. Miyares, a candidate in the race to become Virginia’s attorney general, at a rally in Glen Allen on Oct. 23. Miyares challenged Democratic incumbent Mark R. Herring. (Steve Helber/AP)

Republican Del. Jason S. Miyares maintained a narrow lead over Democratic incumbent Mark R. Herring in the race for Virginia attorney general as election officials Wednesday continued to count votes.

Miyares, who was ahead with about 95 percent of the vote counted by noon Wednesday, declared victory and said he was “humbled and honored” to become the first Latino elected as the state’s top lawyer. A win for him would represent a major upset for a candidate who had never run for statewide office and was taking on one of Virginia’s marquee political names.

By early Wednesday afternoon, Herring had not conceded. “We are waiting for every ballot to be counted, under current Virginia law, every mail ballot must be counted if it arrives by Friday at noon and was postmarked no later than Election Day,” his campaign said in a statement.

Miyares, a former prosecutor who was little known outside his Virginia Beach district before this run, paired a hard-edge, tough-on-crime message with a softer, more uplifting appeal centered on his family’s story of immigrating emigrating from Cuba.

Herring ran on a vision of the attorney general’s office as a “progressive powerhouse” championing liberal causes such as access to abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage.

Experts said whoever won the top of the ticket in Virginia — a contest between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe — would probably pull their party’s candidates in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races to victory, given the polarization of politics in 2021. Youngkin won the governor’s race Tuesday.

During the campaign, Herring and Miyares laid out dueling visions for the attorney general’s office, and each attacked the other as being politically extreme and out of touch with the average Virginia voter in advertisements, campaign appearances and debates.

“The contrast couldn’t be starker,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Richmond. “But there is so much money at the top of the ticket between Youngkin and McAuliffe it hasn’t left much oxygen for this race,” he said.

Herring says he has more left to do if he wins a third term

Herring, 60, cast himself as the “people’s attorney,” someone who would renew his work to bring equality, opportunity and justice to vulnerable residents of the state. He called Miyares a GOP throwback who would unwind the accomplishments Herring’s office had made during his two terms.

Miyares, 45, framed the attorney general as the state’s “top cop,” whose overriding priority should be public safety on the streets and in schools. Miyares derided the “criminal-first, victim-last mind-set” he said had taken root in Herring’s office and among Richmond’s ruling Democrats.

With roots in Havana, Jason Miyares seeks to make history in Va.

Quentin Kidd, academic director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership, said he saw the victor in the governor’s race having a big effect on the attorney general’s race but that other factors were at play as well.

He said the race also turned on voters’ feelings about crime and their sense of how Herring has done as attorney general, pointing out he was the only incumbent on the Nov. 2 ballot in a statewide race.

“I think Miyares laid down the criminal justice vs. criminal justice reform marker because it’s one of the few ways Miyares could draw some distinctions in an area where there is some agitation among voters,” Kidd said, referring to the recent debate over defunding police departments.

Miyares emphasized that theme by highlighting his experience as a prosecutor in Virginia Beach, handling gun, drug and violent offenses over a decade ago, as opposed to Herring’s career as an elected official at the county and state levels.

Miyares tried to tie Herring to the decision by the state’s parole board to release a handful of violent offenders, a line of attack Herring and fact-checkers dismissed as false.

And in the closing days of the campaign, Miyares blasted liberal prosecutors in Northern Virginia as having gone too easy on domestic abusers and child-sex predators, and also called for an investigation of the Loudoun school board for its handling of a student accused of sexual assaulting two teens.

“What we have seen in Virginia with a murder rate that is over a two-decade high is a lot of politicians that have played political games — far-left political games — with our safety,” Miyares said on a recent appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

His message seemed to resonate with voters, who showed support for GOP candidates after a decade of Democratic control of the state’s top offices.

Herring touted his work clearing a backlog of untested rape kits, fighting illegal guns and prosecuting sex traffickers to demonstrate his bona fides on crime, but mostly turned his attention elsewhere on the campaign trail.

Herring pointed to his high-profile stand of refusing to defend Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage during the opening days of his first term in 2014 and his support for removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond that Miyares said he did not want removed.

Herring also played up his recent defense of women’s access to abortion by joining with attorneys general from other states to file briefs against restrictive abortion bans in Texas and South Carolina in September.

“The choice is clear and the stakes are high,” Herring said at a debate in mid-October. “I will always work to keep Virginia a safer, more prosperous and more inconclusive place.”

Candidates sharpen attacks in what could be final debate

While Herring sometimes mentioned he was the son of a single mother and had worked construction jobs to pay for college, Miyares made his personal history a central feature of his campaign.

He repeatedly told the story of how his mother fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1965 to seek freedom and a better life in the United States. He called it an “American miracle” that she was able to go from living under an oppressive regime to becoming a U.S. citizen and voting for her son during his first run for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015. He served two more terms after.

Voters had differing reactions to the candidates’ pitches.

Richard Corns, 62, of Loudoun County, said Tuesday he didn’t vote for Miyares in the Republican primary but supported him in the general election.

“He’s more of a law-and-order guy,” Corns said about Miyares. “He doesn’t seem to want to continue the catch-and-release thing that we’re doing.”

Corns, a father of two, added that he thinks incumbent Herring hasn’t been prosecuting enough “bad criminals” and that he was worried about a possible uptick in crime in Loudoun.

“We’re externalizing the crimes that people do, blaming it on external factors instead of holding them responsible,” Corns said.

Stephanie Kapsis, 38, an education coach, said Herring’s refusal to enforce the state’s ban on same-sex marriage meant that he deserved a third term in office.

“I think I feel better about his approach if he’s going to be the chief lawyer of the state, she said outside the Mt. Vernon Recreation Center in Alexandria, as her daughter Sadie, 6, skipped in the rain puddles nearby.

Where Herring had supported Gov. Ralph Northam’s mask mandate, she feared that Miyares would oppose such requirements — a particular concern for her as a mother, educator and former school board member.

But much of her support for Herring came down to the letter next to his name, she said.

“For me the ticket is the most compelling piece. I think he’s a good guy,” she added.

The attorney general’s office provides legal advice to the state government and officials, prosecutes some crimes and defends the constitutionality of state laws, among other duties.

Rebecca Tan and Teo Armus contributed to this report.