HARRISONBURG — Front-running Del. Rob Bell on Monday dropped out of the race to represent Virginia’s Republican Party in trying to oust Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring in 2017, making Richmond attorney John Adams the man to beat in the June 13 primary.
Bell, R-Albemarle, whose district includes portions of eastern Rockingham County, cited family reasons in a statement, and specifically the needs of his son. Bell did not immediately return calls for further comment.
“I have two young children, one of whom has special needs,” the statement read in part. “This school year has brought significant new challenges that require my personal and immediate attention. Despite my best efforts, it has become clear to me that I can’t possibly fulfill my responsibilities as a father while making a statewide run.”
After commonwealth Republican leaders opted in August to pick its 2017 statewide nominees through a primary instead of a convention, much to the chagrin of the right wing of the party, Bell faced the prospect of not one but two statewide campaigns.
“Rob may be one of the few politicians in history,” Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said, “who said he was dropping out of a race to spend more time with his family to actually mean that.”
State Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, ran against and beat Bell for the GOP’s attorney general nomination in 2013. It was hard-fought, Obenshain said, but notable for its lack of personal attacks and focus on issues.
“I was absolutely supporting Rob, a good friend and colleague — and a terrific campaigner,” Obenshain said. “I made my wife one promise: I will never ever run against Rob Bell for anything ever again. I don’t believe there was one disparaging word in that campaign, and he did everything he could possibly do to help get me elected. I have great respect for his decision; it was made for all the right reasons.”
Asked whether he would consider getting into the race, Obenshain immediately quashed any such thought, saying: “Who’s speculating that? There has never been a possibility.”
Obenshain narrowly lost to Herring by only a few hundred votes in 2013.
In addition to Adams, Virginia Beach attorney Chuck Smith is in the GOP nomination race. And both The Associated Press and The Bull Elephant, a respected Virginia GOP news website, said Monday that State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, is considering jumping in the race. Stanley could not be reached for comment.
Obenshain and other influential commonwealth Republicans said the smart money is on Adams, whose resume includes serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy, clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, acting as associate White House counsel for President George W. Bush and being a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney General’s Richmond office.
“Over the past 10 months, I have been crisscrossing the Commonwealth, often right alongside Rob, as we campaign to defeat Mark Herring,” a statement from Adams said in part. “I have gotten to know him well out on the trail, and my respect for him has only continued to grow. He is a superb public servant, and a fine man. Rob has been committed to defeating Herring for a long time. As we move forward, I will draw on the example Rob has set as a tenacious and relentless fighter in the battle to win back the AG’s office.”
As a sitting delegate, Bell had a considerable campaign war chest, raising more than $815,000 in the past four years.
Adams has raised more than $430,000, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. Smith has accumulated only about $4,000.
“John Adams is a good friend, and he has been out there impressing people all over Virginia,” Obenshain said. “I think he will be the nominee, and an outstanding candidate. I was 100 percent on Team Bell, but it is great that we have another great candidate to step up.”
State Republicans are unified in their dislike for Herring, whom they accuse of politicizing his office and using it to promote a Democratic agenda, including attempting to expand rights for immigrants, transgender bathroom choice, same-sex marriage and abortion. Valley Republicans were unanimous in their praise for Bell and his decision, and in their determination to take down Herring.
“The other two folks vying for the nomination, they’re very sharp individuals as well,” Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, said. “And whoever ends up getting the nomination we’ll be in good shape to take that office. This also shows another side of Rob that I really appreciated about him. At the end of the day, he’s able to put his priorities in order.”
“Having to campaign statewide twice, that affected Rob’s decision and his wife’s,” Del Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave said, “Having to campaign in a primary made it a tougher job.”