After a nail-biting election, the recount in the Virginia Attorney General's race begins on Monday. This event is significant for three reasons.
First, this race is very, very close. The final vote count had Democrat Mark Herring ahead by 165 votes. There are 2,558 precincts in Virginia in 133 electoral authorities with the smallest of these election authorities being Norton City with 861 votes and the largest being Fairfax County with 303,083. Given past experience in recounts, there will probably be enough additional votes from ballots that were not properly completed that both candidates will gain more than 165 votes. For comparison, in Minnesota in 2008, Senator Franken gained over 1,000 additional votes and Senator Coleman gained over 600 additional votes in the first recount. While Minnesota started with a slightly larger pool of votes cast, a similar result in Virginia would still result in around 1,200 additional votes being split between the two candidates.
Second, as in many states, the Virginia Attorney General's Office is a good position from which to run for future office. Since 1981 (now nine straight elections in Virginia), at least one of the candidates for Governor in the general election has been a present or former Attorney General (with the former in many cases being a person who was serving as Attorney General before resigning to run for Governor).
Third, unlike a private attorney who works for a client who decides whether to file a case or settle, the Attorney General works for the people. In many states, neither the Governor nor the legislature can force an Attorney General to file a case (or appeal if the State loses at trial) or prevent the Attorney General from settling or defending a case as he/she sees fit. Aside from generally setting priorities (pursue misleading loan practices by the payday loan industry or look for technical violations by doctors providing abortions or willing to prescribe morning-after pills), the Attorney General makes the final call on potential big cases. In the case of Virginia, and many states with Republican Attorney Generals, that has meant taking on the federal government in challenges to laws disfavored by conservatives (e.g., the Affordable Care Act). Virginia is a large enough state and close enough to the nation's media centers that the priorities of the Virginia Attorney General (like the priorities in New York and California) can help drive the national debate.
My hunch is that Mark Herring should stay in front, but recent history has taught both parties to fight over every questionable ballot at the local level, so that the final decision is made by those in charge of the recount (here, a three-judge panel) with challenges driven not entirely by the odds of the challenge succeeding but by trying to create a perception that the recount is going favorably for the candidate making the challenge. Depending upon the results of the recount, this round may not be the end of the challenge to the result.