Business leaders in Virginia aren't thrilled with their choices for governor, but Democrat Terry McAuliffe is beginning to capitalize on their dissatisfaction with the deeply conservative tenor of the Republican ticket.
McAuliffe has raised substantially more money than Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli from nearly every business sector except for the energy industry, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project. A handful of McDonnell's top donors in the business world are still on the sidelines or have donated to McAuliffe. Other recent endorsements include Dwight Schar, a top homebuilder and co-owner of the Washington Redskins, and three top leaders of Virginia Free, a pro-business group that held its annual leadership forum on Monday in northern Virginia.
Jimmy Hazel, the group's chairman and one of the new McAuliffe supporters, said Cuccinelli's opposition to the $6 billion deal that raises taxes to improve the congested state's roads and other infrastructure would be a major challenge for the GOP candidate. After initially calling the tax-raising deal unconstitutional, Cuccinelli has said that if elected, he would not try to overturn it.
"I know he's changed his tune a little, but he should have been with us from the beginning," Hazel said at the forum. "The business community is a group that wants things to happen and that includes progress in building infrastructure."
Cuccinelli has tried to attract business leaders with a tax-cutting plan, but some are wary of his record as an anti-abortion crusader and critic of a coveted transportation deal. McAuliffe's efforts to downplay his Democratic power-brokering and pitch himself as a businessman have collided with questions about the few jobs created by two of his latest ventures.
"There's not an obvious choice," said Judy Ford Wason, who led bi-partisan coalitions for Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner but has not yet endorsed a candidate this year.
While neither candidate can lay claim to the business community five months before the vote, there's anecdotal evidence McAuliffe has made inroads in this bellwether state as he seeks to follow the path paved by McDonnell, whose term ends this year, and Warner, who went on to the U.S. Senate. If McAuliffe is successful, his campaign will be a model for Democrats in next year's mid-term elections and serve as a cautionary tale to Republicans like Cuccinelli who are fiercely opposed to abortion rights and gay marriage.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, another key proponent of the transportation funding package, offered McAuliffe the next best thing to an endorsement by praising his support for the deal. "I think that's the kind of bipartisan approach we need," he told the audience of about 400 people at the Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner.
Bolling and McAuliffe shared the stage Monday to tout a proposed memorial to honor slain law enforcement officers. Off stage, McAuliffe dismissed criticism that he overstated his influence in helping broker the transportation funding agreement. "I was very vocal and very open and I was for the transportation deal," he said. "My opponent was very vocal and very open and he was against it."
Bolling joked about how he had hoped to be at the forum as the GOP nominee but "it wasn't in the tea leaves," he said, in an apparent reference to the tea party movement's support for Cuccinelli. Bolling quit the race after Cuccinelli's allies in the state Republican Party decided to choose its nominee at a convention dominated by conservative activists instead of in a more widely attended primary.
Cuccinelli, who did not attend the event, hosted a roundtable discussion Monday with about a dozen women business and community leaders in Richmond. Though at odds with McDonnell on the transportation deal, Cuccinelli has said he is taking a cue from his "Bob's for Jobs" 2009 campaign and putting the economy at the forefront of his agenda.
McDonnell was widely criticized for losing that focus and signing a controversial law requiring women seeking abortions to get ultrasound exams and has sought to smooth out his legacy by wrangling bi-partisan support for the transportation law. Cuccinelli, who supported the ultrasound law as well as strict new regulations of abortion clinics, is seeking to make the same pivot toward the mainstream. "The conversation we had today with women leaders from the Richmond area yielded specific and concrete ideas on how we can move our Commonwealth forward and secure our economic future for our children," he said in a press release Monday.
One typical Virginia swing voter leaning toward Cuccinelli is Joey Musmar, managing partner of an accounting firm in Reston. Musmar voted for Republicans like Gov. McDonnell and former President Bush but also Democrats like President Obama and Sen. Tim Kaine.
"I feel Cuccinelli is more approachable and will be more fiscally conservative, and I'm not sure McAuliffe gives straight, non-partisan answers," he said. "I'm looking for someone who is willing to step across the aisle and work for the betterment of the country."
While McAuliffe has yoked his campaign to his success in the private sector, he has struggled to defend two of his most recent investments. GreenTech, an electric-car company he once boasted would produce 10,000 cars this year, has not begun major production. (McAuliffe quietly stepped down as its chairman in December.) Another venture into alternative energy to manufacture wooden pellets has yet to get off the ground.
"The only candidate that is actually focused on jobs and the economy in this race is Ken Cuccinelli," said campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix. "In light of his stunning business failures at GreenTech and Franklin Pellets and false promises to bring jobs to Virginia, Terry McAuliffe has had no choice but to try and change the subject off of the economy."
Another challenge for McAuliffe is that while he needs to mobilize the Democratic voters who twice helped Obama carry Virginia, the gubernatorial nominee can't be too closely associated with an administration known for a health care overhaul unpopular in the business community. "A lot of business people can't swallow that," said Til Hazel, a major developer in northern Virginia. "I'm not sure how McAuliffe is going to work that out."