The race for Virginia’s lieutenant governor draws mostly yawns, even in Virginia, because the office is largely symbolic, with a limited ability to affect legislation. Candidates often have their eye on the governor’s chair.
But this year, the race is a high-stakes contest for control of the state Senate, leverage that could have longterm implications for the state’s slow but steady progress toward pro-life legislation and other conservative issues. Plus, Virginia is a swing state in federal elections, and commentators will tout this fall’s contest as an early indicator of the prospects for strongly conservative candidates in the next round of federal races in 2014.
Both political parties nailed down nominees for the marquee gubernatorial race in the Nov. 5 statewide election months ago. Current Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe were unopposed.
So the news yesterday that Virginia Democrats nominated state senators Ralph Northam for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for attorney general in the state’s open primary was unsurprising. By picking strongly liberal nominees from a slate of strongly liberal candidates, state Democrats stayed out in left field, hoping to paint the staunchly conservative GOP slate as extremists.
The conservative-liberal divide will show up clearly in the clash between Northam and Republican E.W. Jackson. The strongly pro-life black minister and political rookie, has accused Planned Parenthood of being more deadly to African-American lives than the Ku Klux Klan because of the number of abortions performed on black women. He got only five percent of the vote in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2012.
Pundits charge Jackson’s presence will make it hard for Cuccinelli to soften his social conservative image and emphasize economic issues for the general election.
Northam, a Norfolk doctor, is a hero to Virginia’s abortion advocates for thundering against a Republican ultrasound bill last year, helping to force Gov. Robert McDonnell to demand a watered-down version. Northam promised during the campaign to try to repeal the ultrasound law and a new law imposing more oversight and regulation of abortion facilities, aimed at abuses similar to those perpetrated by Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell. He also supports homosexual marriage and Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.
Northam could do little as lieutenant governor to further such an agenda, even if Democrat McAuliffe becomes governor. The House stands strongly Republican and likely will remain so even though all 100 seats are up for grabs this fall.
But, the Senate is split 20-20 with the next election not until 2015, and in ties, the lieutenant governor casts the deciding vote. Just as important is the fact that with the Senate tied, the lieutenant governor makes the all-important committee chairman assignments, which largely determine what legislation makes it to the Senate floor. In short, whichever party takes the office of lieutenant governor controls the Senate, regardless of who becomes governor.
Unless, that is, the Senate split changes in upsets in the special elections following the Nov. 5 statewide contests. Currently Northam, Democratic attorney general nominee Herring, and the GOP nominee for attorney general, Mark Obenshain, all hold senate seats that will need to be filled if they win.
Another possibility: In a close race, Virginia voters could split the top ticket, something they did most recently in 1993. Jackson is a rookie candidate with a controversial past, while Cuccinelli has shown he can win even in mostly liberal districts. So even if Cuccinelli wins, a Jackson loss means the conservative agenda is mostly dead in Virginia.
At the moment, the Real Clear Politics average of five recent polls puts the contest between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe at a dead heat, with the Democrat leading by 3-5 points in the most recent polls.