Shades of Florida in AG race
Story by Chris Graham
Bob McDonnell has claimed victory. Creigh Deeds has vowed to fight to ensure that every vote has been counted.
And so the Virginia political world turns as the race for attorney general moves toward week three of overtime.
“The people get to decide who the next attorney general is, not Bob McDonnell,” said Mark Bergman, a spokesman for the campaign of Deeds, a Democrat who is currently trailing McDonnell, a Republican, by 349 votes in the latest reporting by the State Board of Elections.
More than 1.94 million votes were cast in the balloting conducted on Election Day last week – making the margin one of the two-hundredths of 1 percent variety.
“And the votes are still being counted,” Bergman said. “This has turned from what was a 3,400-vote margin late on Election Night to what is now a less-than-400-vote margin this morning. It gets closer every time you turn on your computer.
“The process that we’re in right now is that the votes will be certified by the State Board of Elections on Nov. 28. To declare somebody the winner at this point is jumping the gun,” Bergman told The Augusta Free Press.
That hasn’t stopped McDonnell – like George W. Bush in 2000 – from portraying himself as the clear winner at every turn.
“We are working hard to preserve Bob McDonnell’s victory by ensuring the integrity of the democratic process in Virginia,” spokesman John Phillippe said.
“Bob will be certified as the attorney general-elect on Nov. 28. We are moving forward with our transition plans. With a staff to hire and a legislative package to put together, there is no time to waste,” Phillippe told the AFP.
Shades of Sunshine
It’s starting to sound like Florida in 2000 – to some, anyway.
First, there are McDonnell’s efforts to put himself over in the minds of the voters as the victor. Then factor in Deeds’ attempts to get public opinion on his side by playing up the every-vote-must-be-counted angle.
Both, meanwhile, have put together transition teams.
There are some key differences between the two situations, though.
“In most measures, Virginia is better than Florida in 2000,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
“We haven’t had as many problems with respect to people being removed from the voting list the way that was the case in Florida, where tens of thousands of people were taken off the voting list, without any notice, without any due process, and only found out about it when they showed up to vote on Election Day 2000,” Farnsworth said.
“The system in Florida was a pretty incompetent one. There are some shortcomings in the Virginia system, but nowhere near the problems that we saw in Florida five years ago,” Farnsworth told the AFP.
Perhaps more important, said Quentin Kidd, a political-science professor at Christopher Newport University, is the structural difference in place in Virginia law that dictates that a recount is in order if the race meets certain criteria in terms of vote margins.
“None of those procedures were in place in 2000 in Florida. What guided the process in Florida in 2000 was the PR battle that was used by the campaigns to set the agenda for the recount process. There’s no need for something like that here in Virginia in 2005 because as long as the criteria in state law are met, we have our recount,” Kidd told the AFP.
Another difference – the stakes were much, much higher in Florida in ’00.
“As important as the job of attorney general of Virginia is, it’s not the presidency of the United States. That is a key reason why we haven’t heard the rhetoric between McDonnell and Deeds that we heard in 2000 between the Bush and Gore camps,” Kidd said.
Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, intervened to settle one dispute between the McDonnell and Deeds camps – offering both camps office space to set up their transition teams while the matter of who won and who lost is being sorted out.
Lt. Gov.-elect Bill Bolling, a Republican, has also taken care of some behind-the-scenes business – dispatching assistance in the form of campaign staffers to aid McDonnell.
“Both candidates have gotten where they are on the basis of extraordinarily hard work. Neither one is going to walk away from an election this close until the results have been determined,” Farnsworth said.
“I don’t think McDonnell’s declaration of victory reduces the resolve of the Deeds team to contest this, and to have a recount,” Farnsworth said. “Candidates who are ahead want to sit on a lead and stay ahead, and they want to create a public impression that they have won. But I don’t think that’s really going to discourage the Deeds people from being aggressive in going through the recount process.
“What we saw in 2000 with public opinion was that there was a great willingness on the part of citizens to allow the process to work out. There wasn’t a rush to have somebody declared a winner. There was quite a bit of patience, in fact. I would suggest that there would be just as much patience for a lower-level office like attorney general as there was for president in 2000. So it will be a few weeks at best before this is resolved,” Farnsworth said.
And it will be resolved the old-fashioned way, Kidd predicts.
“At some point, one of them stands up and says, ‘It is what it is. I lost by 20 votes or 300 votes or whatever. And it’s time to move on,’ ” Kidd said.