David Kerr

This is a question most people, even those planning to vote next month, may have trouble answering: Can you name the candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general?

If yes, pour yourself an extra cup of coffee. I’m impressed. If not, don’t feel bad; most other people don’t have a clue either.

However, they’re important. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and casts a vote in the event of a tie. This happens a lot in our nearly evenly split Senate. And the attorney general is our top judicial officer. Nonetheless, these races often get labeled “down ballot” contests, almost as if they’re an afterthought, and being a “down ballot” candidate can be lonely.

Sometimes voters are surprised to learn that we even elect our lieutenant governor and attorney general. Their attention, to the extent they’ve taken an interest in the election at all, is almost entirely focused on the race for governor.

Being a down ballot candidate can be trying. You won your party’s nomination for one of the three state offices on the ballot. It was no small battle. It involved raising and spending a lot of money and attending endless events.

And so, it seems like you made it. You were nominated, you had a big celebration and then it seems as if no one is all that interested in you. Media and voter attention is all on the top of the ticket and not the names in the next blocks on the ballot.

However, the winning candidates for these jobs will have significant responsibilities, can quickly become well-known statewide figures, and often are on the short list of candidates for governor or the U.S. Senate in future elections. So, let’s talk about some of these “oh, by the way” elections on the ballot this year.

The lieutenant governor’s race is a faceoff between two aggressive campaigners, Democrat Del. Hala Ayala of Woodbridge and Republican Winsome Sears, a former delegate and a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Sears, an African American, is as right-leaning as Ayala is left-leaning.

Sears is a former Marine and a hardcore conservative activist and strong gun rights advocate who favors restrictions on abortion. Ayala, on the other hand, is proud of the gun restrictions passed by the General Assembly in recent years and supports a woman’s prerogative when it comes to reproductive rights. She has done well in most polling matchups. But polls are dicey at best.

In a weird twist, the Democrats’ other “down ballot candidate” is incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring, who is running for a third term. His prospects for being the Democratic nominee for governor were never good, and the revelation that he dressed up in “black face” for a fraternity show didn’t help. But he likes being attorney general. He has been an activist and liberal attorney general, which got him elected in 2013 and re-elected four years ago. But three times? No attorney general has sought a third term since the 1930s. We’ll have to see how well that notion goes over.

Herring’s Republican opponent is Del Jason Miyares. Miyares, the son of Cuban immigrants, would be the first Hispanic statewide office holder in Virginia. As a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney, he is running on a strong law-and-order platform. He is saying that Herring, who has focused on social issues, isn’t doing enough to empower our police and to seek stronger sentences for dangerous criminals and protect victims.

Again, polls, which I view as being dubious at best, give the edge to Herring, although I would credit that to name recognition.

These “down ballot” candidates have the challenge any candidate has in running for office. Raising money, improving their name recognition and persuading voters they’re the ideal choice for an office some voters don’t even know exists. What worse, with a competitive gubernatorial election, it sometimes seems as if all the political oxygen is being taken away by the top of the tickets, leaving little attention to the next two top jobs. That’s why being a “down ballot candidate” can be such a lonely path to follow.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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