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RICHMOND — Democrats won two of Virginia’s three statewide offices Tuesday, including a redeeming victory for governor-elect Terry McAuliffe, but missed out on a historic sweep for the party.
McAuliffe, 56, won in a nail-biter despite a massive fundraising edge that he used to relentlessly wallop Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and claim his first publicly elected post.
For months, polling showed McAuliffe significantly leading Cuccinelli, who appeared to close that gap by turning his late-race focus to the disastrous rollout of the federal health care act.
Although narrower than expected, McAuliffe’s win in the unofficial count was greater than the 1 percent threshold for a recount under state law, seemingly taking that option off the table for Cuccinelli.
Neither Republican Mark Obenshain nor Democrat Mark Herring, the two candidates for attorney general, appeared on stage Tuesday night with their ticket mates, a sign of the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of their race. An attorney general recount isn’t uncharted territory for Virginia – the state had one to settle the 2005 race for that office.
Winning the state’s top job as well as the office of lieutenant governor gives Democrats, who already hold Virginia’s two U.S. Senate seats, newfound power in state government. That’s a dramatic shift from the status quo in which the GOP has held the top three offices and, for the past two years, had effective control of the General Assembly.
The lieutenant governor’s win by Norfolk’s Ralph Northam, a state senator and physician, gives his party a critical tiebreaking vote in a Virginia Senate now split 20-20 between the two parties.
Whether that dynamic holds true into next year is uncertain, however. Northam’s win and an apparent one by Obenshain, a Harrisonburg state senator, create vacancies necessitating special elections.
Obenshain’s razor-thin victory was a saving grace for Republicans on an otherwise deflating night for the party. However, the closeness of his apparent win over Herring (D-Loudoun County) left open the chance of a recount.
And while local operatives in both parties have been quietly planning for Senate special elections, those considerations were secondary Tuesday evening as euphoric Democrats reveled in their wins.
McAuliffe dedicated time in his victory speech to extend an olive branch to those who didn’t support him.
“I understand that emotions are raw. I have been there. I get it,” he said, recalling past campaigns he was involved in. “So while I promise you tonight that I will be a governor for all Virginians, the real test is my actions when I take office. I expect you to hold me to my pledge to work with both sides.”
For McAuliffe, victory was partly paved in several swing localities. He narrowly won Chesapeake, as Barack Obama did last year en route to re-election; comfortably claimed Henrico County in suburban Richmond; and unofficially led in Northern Virginia’s Prince William County.
Winning in those bellwether communities helped McAuliffe withstand a late surge by Cuccinelli that few public polls foretold.
“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” a hoarse Cuccinelli told Republicans during his concession speech in Richmond.
Overall voter participation was up from four years ago, though ballots cast in both campaigns exceeded 2 million.
Republicans now face a moment of introspection as they seek to pick up the pieces and figure out the direction of a party torn between factions of old guard GOPers and Tea Party conservatives who picked this year’s crop of candidates.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for McAuliffe, an entrepreneur and political money man since 2009 when his financial advantage in the party primary that June produced a distant second-place finish.
After licking his wounds, McAuliffe buffed his image and better familiarized himself with Virginia policy and those who influence it to burnish his credentials for this bid.
He sought to underscore that with investments in a pair of Virginia-based green businesses whose slow progress backfired on him, becoming campaign distractions rather than assets.
Persistent questions that hovered around one – his idling GreenTech Automotive electric car company – intensified in the wake of midsummer revelations about a pair of federal probes involving plans to capitalize through investments from foreigners seeking visas.
Through late October, the two main combatants had raised $54 million, with huge sums going towards negative advertising funded by the campaigns and third party groups spending to tear down each man.
Acknowledging that in his victory speech, McAuliffe said: “I think every single person is Virginia is glad that the TV ads are now over.”
Cuccinelli, 45, campaigned on his experience as Virginia’s current attorney general and as a state senator before that, a record of public service he said vastly outweighs his rival’s accomplishment in business and as a Washington money man.
McAuliffe stressed his business credentials and bipartisanship as antidotes to what he painted as a Cuccinelli approach that alienates many Virginians of diverse backgrounds.
Both men are trained lawyers, but the similarities end there.
Another attorney by training, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, 37, also factored in the race despite running a low-budget campaign.
But his unofficial vote total approaching 7 percent appeared to fall short of the 10 percent threshold necessary to get his party ballot access for years to come.
Attorney general’s race too close to call, recount likely
RICHMOND — Overnight vote returns on Wednesday showed Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring in a neck-and-neck race too close to call for attorney general, which could lead to a recount reminiscent of the 2005 race for that office.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Obenshain unofficially held a 1,169-vote edge over Herring out of more than 2.19 million ballots cast.
Herring, a Loundoun County state senator, told reporters at McAuliffe’s Northern Virginia victory party last night “the race is far from over” as returns continued to trickle in after midnight.
“The commonwealth has a process to make sure all the votes are counted and we are going to make sure we go through that process,” he said, apparently referring to the official vote canvass. “And we are going to make sure that we follow the process and make sure that every single vote is counted.”
He stopped short of calling for a recount, though the closeness of the contest suggests one is in the offing.
State law allows for recount in tight elections where the difference is less than one percentage point. The trailing candidate covers the cost of a court-supervised recount if the difference is more than half a percentage point, and the state covers the freight if the margin is less.
In 2005, Republican Bob McDonnell’s recount victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds — the difference was 360 votes out of more than 1.94 million cast — was finalized more than a month after the election.
Obenshain in an overnight statement expressed confidence he would ultimately prevail, but was less definitive in a message sent to supporters this morning.
“We’re going to wait until the State Board of Elections finishes its tabulations, and make any further decisions at that time,” said Obenshain, a state senator from Harrisonburg.