(AP) — Republican Mark Obenshain conceded the race for Virginia attorney general Wednesday as Democrat Mark Herring built an insurmountable lead in a recount, giving Democrats a top-of-the ticket sweep for the first time since 1989.
“It’s been a vigorous and hard-fought campaign but it’s over,” Obenshain said at a news conference. He said he called Herring earlier Wednesday to offer his congratulations after it “became apparent that our campaign is going to come up a few votes short.”
Herring, a state senator, will succeed Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who unsuccessfully ran for governor and was a conservative activist on social issues. He attempted to block the nation’s new health care law, for example, and took on a climate scientist. Cuccinelli is a climate change skeptic.
Asked what the Democrat sweep signifies, Herring said, “I think what it shows is that Virginians are looking for mainstream leadership and they’re looking to have leadership in our state government that is focused on the issues that are the most concern to Virginia.”
Herring, speaking at a news conference hours after Obenshain conceded, identified those issues as better education and a good transportation system to support a growing economy.
Obenshain’s defeat ended a cliffhanging general election that gave Herring a 165-vote edge out of more than 2.2 million ballots cast Nov. 5, making it the closest race in modern Virginia political history. It led to one of the most extensive modern-day recounts in Virginia as well.
The taxpayer-fund recount continued Wednesday, with a three-judge panel examining challenged ballots. The vote is expected to be certified by week’s end.
In the recount, however, Herring’s edge widened as ballots that did not register on optical scanning machines were examined by hand and the votes added to both men’s column.
Obenshain, a state senator who represents the Harrisonburg area, conceded on the third day of the recount, trailing Herring by 866 votes.
Attorneys for Obenshain had signaled they would seek a contested election if Obenshain had closed the gap in the recount. That allows a losing candidate to take the election to the General Assembly, provided he can prove evidence of voting irregularities. The majority Republican legislature would have met in rare joint session to decide whether to declare Obenshain the winner or schedule a new election.
A contested election would have been a politically divisive start for Democratic Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe, who has preached partisan peace ahead of his inauguration Jan. 11.
William Hurd, who had represented Obenshain before the recount court, said simply of the retabulation: “We needed to find more votes than we did.”
Obenshain said his supporters had encouraged him to pursue suspected election irregularities. Republican attorneys had protested the handling of some ballots in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous and a stronghold for Herring.
“Today is not the time to contest the process or question results,” said Obenshain, flanked by his wife and daughter. “Our goal since Election Day was to ensure we got an accurate result in this election.”
Obenshain said he would continue to pursue his conservative agenda, included a limited government. He also vowed to work on a bipartisan basis, although he complained about the “negative” campaign and left out moderate and liberal Democrats when he said he would work across party lines.
“I’ll continue to reach out to Republicans, independents and conservative Democrats in order to find common ground in pursuing those goals,” he said. He declined to take questions after his news conference.
Obenshain was the GOP’s only hope of avoiding a Democratic sweep of the top three statewide offices after McAuliffe won and state Sen. Ralph Northam was elected lieutenant governor.
The last time there was a Democratic sweep at the top of the ticket was when L. Douglas Wilder topped the party’s ticket as governor in 1989.
As attorney general, Herring will supervise more than 400 lawyers and support staff. The position also is historically a stepping stone to a run for governor.
In the campaign, the Loudoun County Democrat sought to portray Obenshain as a Cuccinelli clone, saying the Republican would pursue an extreme social agenda if elected. Herring, unlike those two Republicans, supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He also has been an advocate of tighter gun restrictions.
Obenshain steered away from hot-button social issues, pledging to protect Virginians from child predators, elder abusers and sex traffickers.
Herring will be departing a state Senate that is now evenly divided — 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats.