As the Republican candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of Virginia fizzle in the polls, the GOP is turning to its equally conservative but little-known nominee for attorney general as the last line of defense against a complete washout in the Nov. 5 election.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which builds farm teams for gubernatorial and federal races by helping elect down-ballot candidates for state office, has stroked four big checks "“ for a total $1.35 million "“ to Mark Obenshain just this month.
Unlike his fellow Republicans on the ticket, Obenshain is running even and possible ahead in campaign contributions and public opinion against his Democratic rival, Mark Herring.
"This Obenshain thing is very real in Virginia and as the governor's race becomes less of a race, the attorney general's race seems to be the talk," said Chris Jankowski, president of the RSLC. "Donors are starting to see that Obenshain can get across the line with some more support, and we're obviously the biggest investor."
A string of polls showing Democrat Terry McAuliffe beating Republican Ken Cuccinelli by seven to 10 percentage points in the governor's race is forcing Republicans to contemplate losing the lock on state government they hold for only the second time since the Civil War. Republicans currently control all of the statewide offices outside the two Senate seats "“ governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general "“ and both the House of Delegates and the Senate. That's a point of pride and a practical advantage for the Republican Party in a major battleground state, though Democrat Barack Obama carried Virginia in the last two presidential elections.
"It's a true swing state and it's always a struggle to maintain Republican control in Virginia," said Jankowski, who lives in Richmond. "The counties you need to win in Virginia look a lot like the counties you need to win in Florida, Ohio, and Colorado."
Obenshain's record as a state senator since 2003 is out of step with such swing counties of moderate, suburban voters, but he's benefiting from the lower profile typical of candidates who aren't at the top of the ticket.
The Harrisonburg lawyer proposed a bill that would have required women to report miscarriages to the police or face a misdemeanor charge, for example, though he withdrew the bill. With Cuccinelli, he co-sponsored legislation that declared life begins at fertilization, which critics said outlawed all abortions and could have limited access to birth control. Obenshain's spokesman, Paul Logan, said he supports an exception to save the life of the mother but he did not outline exceptions for rape or incest.
Obenshain also opposed raising taxes to upgrade the state's transportation system and protecting gay and lesbian state workers from discrimination.
But while McAuliffe has outgunned Cuccinelli on television with attack ads portraying him as an extremist, Obenshain's opponent has struggled to get a similar message out. In a recent Quinnipiac University survey, 46 percent of likely voters said Cuccinelli is too conservative; 71 percent said they did not know enough about Obenshain to form an opinion.
"As voters start to tune into these down-ballot races, they will see that Obenshain would be a continuation of Cuccinelli," said Kevin O'Holleran, Herring's campaign manager. "The whole Republican ticket is totally outside the mainstream."
If Obenshain wins the attorney general race, he would be well-positioned to run for governor in 2017. His father, Dick Obenshain, served as chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia and a co-chairman of the Republican National Committee in the mid-1970s. He died in a plane crash while running for the U.S. Senate in 1978. Obenshain's mother, Helen, went on to serve as Virginia's committeewoman to the RNC. "The son's roots are indeed strong and firm," said Sunday's endorsement by The Richmond Times Dispatch,which took the unusual step of withholding an endorsement in the governor's race.
"We have been reaching out to Republicans, Democrats and independents, and we think this is a race we can win," said Logan of the Obenshain campaign. "Our positive message is allowing us to break through."
The last time Democrats swept the statewide offices in Richmond was 1989. Split-ticket victories "“ in which one party wins the governor's race and another wins the attorney general post "“ are more common. Both of the last Democratic governors, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, served with Republican attorneys general.
Two weeks before the election, the polls suggest the attorney general's contest is the only horserace on the ballot. Obenshain received support from 46 percent of likely voters, compared to Herring with 45 percent, in the latest survey by Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Public Policy. Obenshain's numbers have improved by 4 percent since earlier this month, while Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson were lagging behind their Democratic opponents by 7 and 12 points, respectively.
"The Attorney General's race could very well be the one we wait up late for on Nov. 5," said Quentin Kidd, director of the center, in a statement announcing the polling results.
The Roanoke College poll found a similar state of play. Obenshain was three points ahead of Herring, statistically tying the race, while Cuccinelli was six points behind and Jackson was four points behind the Democratic nominees.
Obenshain also appears to be winning the money race, thanks to the influx of money from the national Republican group. Both he and Herring had collected about $2.4 million as of the end of September "“ before the $1.3 million from the RSLC poured in.