ABINGDON, Va. (AP) —
Virginians who’ve indulged the leisurely pursuits of summer and ignored their swing state’s messy governor’s race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe now confront the only competitive gubernatorial race in the nation.
After this last weekend of the summer, the second political fight in as many years hits full throttle to the Nov. 5 finish line.
Here — in no particular order — are five keys to the race:
McAuliffe had staked his case for being Virginia’s chief executive on his record as a big-time, wheeler-dealer who created jobs, and his tenure as chairman of GreenTech Automotive was to be the centerpiece of his appeal. That began falling apart almost from the moment the former Democratic National Committee chairman and fundraiser for the presidential runs of Bill and Hillary Clinton jumped into this year’s race.
The Associated Press in December debunked his claim that Virginia was not interested in securing the factory where McAuliffe said GreenTech would manufacture tens of thousands of tiny, slow-speed, all-electric vehicles. Emails AP obtained showed that Virginia economic development officials under Democratic and Republican governors worked closely with the firm, which located its plant in Mississippi.
A plant in a Memphis, Tenn., suburb has fallen far short of McAuliffe’s production claims. McAuliffe quietly resigned as GreenTech’s chairman after entering the governor’s race in November. Last month, federal authorities announced that they’re investigating GreenTech and a related firm, Gulf Coast Funds Management LLC, for their handling of a federal program that grants permanent visas to foreigners who invest at least $1 million — or $500,000 in economically struggling regions such as Mississippi — in ventures that create American jobs.
McAuliffe denied any knowledge of the investigation. He has not been named as a subject, but it’s undeniable that the investigation involves actions taken under McAuliffe’s watch at GreenTech.
Since March, troubled nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc. and its big-spending chief executive, Jonnie Williams, has called into question the ethics and judgment of Cuccinelli, who ignored the modern Virginia tradition of incumbent attorneys general resigning as they run for governor.
First, there was the disclosure that a tax dispute lawsuit the company had filed against the Department of Taxation had languished for nearly two years while Cuccinelli, whose office represents the state agency, held more than $10,000 in Star Scientific stock and had received thousands of dollars in gifts from the company. Cuccinelli said he wasn’t personally aware of the lawsuit and that there was no impropriety, but he later turned the case over to a private law firm.
The next month, he amended four years’ worth of required annual state economic disclosure forms to add more gifts from Williams that he claimed he had forgotten earlier, including a $3,500 summer vacation and a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving feast at Williams’ luxury waterside chateau at Virginia’s Smith Mountain Lake.
To his credit, Cuccinelli fully released eight years’ worth of federal and state income tax returns. He also turned the investigation over to Richmond’s Democratic commonwealth’s attorney, Mike Herring, who cleared Cuccinelli of violating Virginia’s weak public ethics laws.
Now, Cuccinelli is also fighting off reports that a staff lawyer in the attorney general’s office aided major energy companies in a class-action lawsuit filed by southwestern Virginia residents who are trying to recover millions of dollars’ worth of royalties for gas the companies are taking from the ground beneath their property.
THE McDONNELL EFFECT
Cuccinelli shares his Star Scientific headaches with Gov. Bob McDonnell, who should be doing all he can right now to pass the governor’s office along to a fellow Republican at this point in a campaign.
The company and Williams provided McDonnell and his family with more than $145,000 in personal gifts, cash and loans as the company lobbied to have its anti-inflammatory product, Anatabloc, made part of every state employee’s basic health benefits plan. Months of media disclosures and lingering federal and state criminal investigations of the McDonnells’ links to Williams and his company have served as a never-ending malignant link to Cuccinelli.
And it doesn’t stop there. The scandal has sidelined McDonnell, who can’t use the visibility and fundraising power of his office to give Cuccinelli an advantage. The incessant coverage also hampers Cuccinelli’s ability to get out his campaign’s message.
OUTSIDE POLITICAL SPENDING
Last year, Virginians were inundated with noxious advertising as a presidential election swing state and a race critical to determining which party controls the Senate. Particularly frustrating was the predominance of advertising by organizations separate from the candidates, some of them murky nonprofits that need never identify their multibillionaire donors.
This year, expect more of the same because Virginia is the only game in the nation. In New Jersey, the only other state electing a governor this year, popular incumbent Republican Chris Christie has a safe lead and is pulling away.
The Republican Governors Association has given Cuccinelli $5.7 million. McAuliffe got $3.4 million from the Democratic Governors Association, more than $800,000 from labor organizations and more than $100,000 from the abortion-rights Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Libertarian Robert Sarvis holds mathematics degrees from Harvard and Cambridge, a law degree and a fresh master’s degree in economics. He’s running a campaign on a shoestring, traveling the state in a minivan with two child-restraint seats in the rear. He has no money and, until recently, no media attention.
Recent polling by Quinnipiac University showed Cuccinelli and McAuliffe both laboring under high negatives among likely voters and an unusually large number of voters still professing to be undecided. The late August poll did not factor in Sarvis, but a few interactive polls have shown him attracting more interest.
That doesn’t mean Sarvis will win, but it makes him an alternative this year, giving him the potential to drain votes away. Conventional wisdom says it would compete more with the GOP’s small government message, but it could also appeal to abortion rights and gay rights backers who might vote Democratic.
Advantage: To be determined.