The two state senators battling to be Virginia's next attorney general, Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring, hit their talking points and traded jabs Wednesday morning at a Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate in Leesburg.
The down-ticket statewide race has been shadowed by the mud-slinging, nationally-watched contest to be the commonwealth's next governor. That gubernatorial matchup, between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, has played no small role in the Obenshain-Herring race, particularly with Herring's efforts to paint his opponent as a clone of the fiercely conservative Cuccinelli.
Herring, who represents Loudoun in the General Assembly, used the debate to continue zinging Obenshain for his views on social and women's health issues. Herring said the Republican wants to “dictate to women what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.”
“In a Cuccinelli-Jackson-Obenshain Virginia, gays and lesbians in Virginia would be treated like second-class citizens,” he said.
Obenshain countered by decrying Herring's charges as “false and negative” and that he – the Republican – is focused on ensuring a vibrant economy and safe communities in Virginia.
“While I've been sharing my positive view and agenda about what I'm going to do as attorney general, Mark [Herring] has been traveling, engaging in this same kind of false, negative attacks focusing on social issues,” Obenshain said.
In response, Herring said it's not a negative campaign if a candidate is simply pointing out his opponent's record. Engaging the Republican, Herring chided, “If I had your voting record, you know, I wouldn't want to talk about it either, and I'd consider it negative too.”
On gay rights and women's health care, “it's important that voters know where the candidates stand on these issues,” Herring said.
In 2007, Obenshain was a sponsor of House Bill 2797, which would've provided “that 'the right to enjoyment of life' guaranteed by [the Constitution of Virginia] is vested in each born and preborn human being from the moment of fertilization.” The measure, which eventually failed in the House of Delegates on a 43-53 vote, could have led to restrictions on women's access to contraception.
Obenshain also initiated a bill that, by consequence, would've criminalized the failure of a woman to report a miscarriage to authorities. That proposal, Obenshain said in August, stemmed from an instance in Virginia in which a woman allegedly threw her dead baby in a dumpster. The senator said he was working to implement laws that would protect newborns, but he soon realized his legislation was too broad and struck it.
From the get-go Wednesday, the Republican made clear he wanted to talk about how the attorney general can grow and preserve jobs. Obenshain has consistently blasted what he sees as over-regulation from the federal government and a general overreach from Washington.
“Regulations are the number one job killer in America and we've got to refocus in the attorney general's office on regulatory review and reform,” Obenshain said. The Republican especially honed in against Environmental Protection Agency standards he says will hurt Virginia's coal country in the southwest region of the state.
Moreover, Obenshain used the topic of business-friendliness to highlight the support big labor and unions have pledged to Herring.
Transportation, which many power players who attended the debate consider an essential business issue, was a key talking point for Herring. The Democrat supported this year's bipartisan transportation bill that will pump millions of new transit dollars into the commonwealth's crumbling transit network, while Obenshain has voted against new transportation funding reforms on numerous occasions, including the historic legislation earlier this year.
When the two candidates ventured away from firm ideological divides, they both agreed Medicaid fraud, elderly abuse and human trafficking are critical public safety items that must be addressed by the state's next top lawyer.
Both Herring and Obenshain have said the state's ethics and financial disclosure laws need reforming, though Herring did so well before before his Republican opponent. Included in both candidates' ethics reform proposals are bans on gifts to elected officials and stronger penalties for lawmakers who break the rules. Only Herring has pushed for the creation of an ethics commission to examine any wrongdoing, while Obenshain exclusively has called for caps on contingency fees when the attorney general's office contracts with outside counsel.
This story has been updated from an earlier version.