Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli is facing unwelcome spillover from the drip-drip of revelations about money and gifts flowing from a Virginia businessman to Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Jonnie Williams, who heads nutritional supplement manufacturer Star Scientific, has given $145,000 to the governor and his wife, including expensive clothing, a Rolex watch and checks to defray the costs of their daughters' weddings, according to the latest report in the Washington Post. The FBI is investigating.
Cuccinelli also has close ties to Williams, accepting vacations at his home and airplane flights and investing more than $10,000 in stock in his company. The attorney general tried to remedy the situation by amending his financial disclosures and recusing himself from the state's $1.7 million tax dispute with Star Scientific.
At the same time, Cuccinelli has kept an arm's length from the governor, breaking with him on a major transportation deal, campaigning without him at the state Republican convention and initiating the state probe into McDonnell's relationship with Williams. “What we’ve all been seeing has been very painful for Virginia, and it’s been completely inconsistent with Virginia’s very reserved traditions," Cuccinelli said in a statement clearly trying to distance himself from the scandal.
His campaign also sought to turn the tables on his Democratic opponent on Wednesday by alleging, "In the history of American politics, there has never been a gubernatorial candidate more embroiled in political scandal and questionable financial dealings than Terry McAuliffe." The anti-McAuliffe screed did not include anything new, rehashing accusations dating back to his fundraising for former President Clinton, and some Cuccinelli supporters remain worried about fallout from the rapidly unfolding scandal surrounding McDonnell.
"Right now it's a case of a terrible optics, and it's essentially handed a McAuliffe an arsenal of political ammunition," said Eric Odom, a prominent Virginia tea party activist. "He probably has ten campaign ads against Cuccinelli lined up and ready to go."
Indeed, McAuliffe's allies from the Democratic National Committee to ProgressVA to the Democratic Governors Association on Wednesday all circulated timelines of the relationship between Cuccinelli and Williams. "Cuccinelli has tried to deny his involvement in the scandal but he can't hide from the facts," declared the DNC.
At a campaign stop in Alexandria Wednesday afternoon, Cuccinelli wouldn't answer whether he thought McDonnell should step down. "The other discussion takes away from what Virginians care about: jobs," he said. Cuccinelli said that he's never offered Williams any favors – "only thing he's gotten from my office is opposition" – and called for increased disclosure and stricter caps on gift-giving to Virginia politicians.
"Right now there are two investigations running, one of which began with my referral, and we need to let those play out; however, all of this emphasizes the need for clearer and faster disclosures that cover the whole family, as well as a cap on the size and types of gifts," he said in a follow-up statement. "This situation also demonstrates why transparency is so important in our system. That’s why I’ve released eight years of my tax returns, and I will put them out each of the next four years while I am governor."
McAuliffe has called for a ban on gifts under $100. He has released three years of tax returns.
Odom urged Cuccinelli to be pro-active and lay out clear guidelines for legal, ethical behavior by elected officials. "He needs to go on the offensive, blaze his own path and show some leadership," he said. That could be sticky for Cuccinelli, since he simultaneously wears two hats as the state's top lawyer and the Republican nominee. Nearly every past attorney general who ran for governor stepped down from his state post.
Cuccinelli is also treading carefully to protect his conservative base while reaching out to the moderate Republicans and Democrats who helped elect McDonnell in 2009. The transportation deal is the line in the sand between these two constituencies, with tea party activists fuming over the subsequent tax hike and the political establishment and business community reveling over future road improvements.
"To be brutally honest, Bob McDonnell looks like a fourth-string quarterback fumbling the handoff to Cuccinelli, first with the tax increase and then these revelations" about his relationship with Williams, said Keith Appell, a conservative political consultant.
While Cuccinelli's opposition to the $600 million in transportation funding appeases the conservative wing of his party, it's widely viewed as potential impediment in a general election. At this point, however, the disagreement with the beleaguered gornor could be helpful for Cuccinelli's public image. Even before the transportation law passed, no one would have mistaken Cuccinelli -- who has crusaded against climate change science, gay marriage and abortion -- for a clone of the governor.
"He is definitely his own man with a very principled outlook on government and politics," said Morton Blackwell, the Republican national committeeman from Virginia. "Ken's position on the transportation deal was based on principle, not politics, but I suppose there are some good deeds that are rewarded."
The Republican National Committee rallied behind Cuccinelli on Wednesday, announcing that Chairman Reince Priebus would attend openings of campaign offices the next day in Hanover and North Chesterfield. Another prominent Virginia conservative, Richard Viguerie, said, "I haven't seen any evidence that McDonnell's problems have leaked over to the governor's race. It's not a help obviously, but every election is about the future, and I think that's going to be true of this race. The fact that the present governor messed up and made mistakes won't affect who people vote for."
Cuccinelli's campaign is eager to steer the debate to what it called McAuliffe's "well-established record of trading access for cash and questionable business deals." A memo on Wednesday from his top political adviser, Chris LaCivita, accused the former Democratic National Committee chairman of selling access to the White House and noted that he put up $1.35 million in collateral to finance Clinton's mortgage on a home in Westchester, N.Y. Cuccinelli's campiagn also mocked McAuliffe's unfulfilled promises to create thousands of jobs through an electric car company and renewable energy project.
"McAuliffe is going to have his own problems, so I think it will all be a wash if there's negative fallout from McDonnell on Ken Cuccinelli," said Jamie Radtke, founder of the Virginia Tea Party Federation. "Everything is predictive on Cuccinelli being able to get his message out."
Cameron Smith contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated who is being investigated over a relationship with Jonnie Williams. It is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.