Virginia governor's race: down, dirty, and a gigantic mess

The Virginia governor's race has long been viewed as a signal of national trends. But the race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is too muddy to read the tea leaves.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli (l.) gestures during a debate with Democratic challenger Terry McAuliffe during the Virginia Bar Association convention debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., last month.

During off-election years, the political class regularly watches the gubernatorial race in Virginia, a swing state that has backed President Obama twice and President George W. Bush before him, for signs of the national climate’s evolution.

So far the 2013 contest, pitting two fierce partisans against each other at a time when the incumbent Republican governor is under federal investigation, has proven nothing if not entertaining. It’s gotten so down and dirty, in fact, that Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) called the race for governor “disgusting” Thursday and issued a plea for at least one of the two candidates to step “above the fray” to “elevate the discussion.”

Who, then, are the players, and, this year, should they and the battle for the state’s top job matter to voters outside of the Commonwealth?

The Democrats have fielded former Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe. Mr. McAuliffe, who lives just outside of Washington in McLean, Va., ran for governor unsuccessfully in 2009. A powerful party moneyman during the 1990s and longtime regular on the Sunday chat shows, he counts former President Clinton as his golfing partner and tight buddy. McAuliffe is exuberant, unpredictable, affluent, and provides decades of quotes his opponents can mine for fodder against him. Adversaries view him as a political animal, first and foremost, and question his ties to the state and knowledge of its issues.

Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, deemed a “hero of the religious right” by National Journal, made headlines for challenging Mr. Obama’s health-care law in court. A father of seven, he is a tea party favorite who has pursued a two-year investigation against a prominent climate change researcher at the University of Virginia, until the Virginia Supreme Court derailed it, and railed against abortion and gay marriage. He is generally viewed as out-of-step with the modern moderate bent of much of the state. Adversaries, even those in his own party, recall that during his seven-year stint in the state Senate, Mr. Cuccinelli was “uncompromising” – and they didn’t mean it as a compliment. They dubbed him "Crazy Cuccinelli" and "Kook-inelli," according to NPR.

“These two are running against the only people they could beat,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

With deeper ties to the conservative state convention attendees who pick the GOP nominee, Cuccinelli forced the more moderate Mr. Bolling out of the contest, and McAuliffe, meanwhile, was the only Democrat who wanted the job.

But both men are mired in legal dramas of their own making all while the state’s incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) faces a federal investigation about gifts (a Rolex watch, catering for his daughter’s wedding, clothes for his wife) and money he received from a wealthy Virginia businessman and did not report.

Cuccinelli has been questioned for strangely timed stock purchases of shares of Star Scientific, the company run by Jonnie Williams Sr., the wealthy, gift-giving donor to Governor McDonnell. Cuccinelli also received some $18,000 worth of gifts from Mr. Williams that he failed to report and declined to return, and he has stayed in two of his homes.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s former green car company is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for guaranteeing returns to foreign investors.

“They are vying with one another on the scandal scale,” Mr. Sabato says. “It really is a race to the bottom.”

The ad wars have ramped up accordingly, with the Republican Governors Association launching a new spot questioning McAuliffe’s trustworthiness.

Overall, the contest has proven a hyper-indicator of the fractured relationship between the political parties in general and a broader sign of a political system held hostage by the extremes.

“Because the two parties are very polarized nationally, this does reflect at least that much, but normally you have a wider selection of candidates and you have at least one of them that comes closer to the mainstream without having these very debilitating appendages,” Sabato says.

The Daily Beast has deemed the Virginia contest a “sad, sleazy circus.”

Or, as National Journal put it: “Pity the Virginia voter.”

Turnout will hold the key to who prevails this fall. Will Republicans be so turned off by the McDonnell investigation that they stay home? Or will Democrats fail to make a love connection with the Clinton gadfly McAuliffe?

Either way, voters are facing a lesser-of-two-evils decision when they head to the polls in November, Sabato adds. He cautions that this year’s contest does not necessarily allow politicos to read the tea leaves in Virginia for hints about how the national electorate might shape up in advance of the 2016 White House contest. It’s hard to see a vote for either McAuliffe or Cuccinelli, alternately, as an endorsement or repudiation of President Obama’s policies.

The latest RealClearPolitics poll average shows the race with a 1.3 percentage point difference between the candidates. So, it is anyone's race.

But Sabato notes one sliver of good news for all Virginians as they consider their decisions in the gubernatorial faceoff.

“The saving grace is our one-term limit, and I’m going to fight anybody in the future who proposes to change it,” Sabato says.

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