Terry McAuliffe is having an identity crisis.
He launched his second bid for Virginia governor several months ago as a “businessman, entrepreneur, and father,” his new website stripped of his well-known stint as Democratic National Committee chairman. McAuliffe completed an official weeklong campaign launch with a rally Thursday at George Mason University—but his persona seems murkier than ever.
His image as a businessman has been undermined by a series of reports in the media detailing how two of his job-creating ventures have failed to meet expectations. 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.
McAuliffe’s image as a family man has also been undercut. Though his first television ad features heartwarming videos of his wife and five children, anecdotes from his book about ditching his wife during labor and on the way home from the hospital after another birth have gotten far more publicity.
“The narrative isn’t flowing the way McAuliffe hoped it would,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He has to define his whole persona before Ken Cuccinelli does.”
While McAuliffe struggles to define himself, his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, is undergoing a personality makeover. The longtime crusader against abortion, climate-change science, and homosexuality is seeking to position himself as a jobs-focused, tax-cutting moderate. Cuccinelli is also fending off allegations that he failed to disclose stock holdings in a dietary-supplement-maker called Star Scientific and personal gifts from its chief executive. Under pressure to avoid a conflict of interests, Cuccinelli tapped outside counsel to handle a tax dispute with the state.
Polls suggest the race between these two evolving candidates is up for grabs. The latest NBC News/Marist poll found McAuliffe slightly ahead among registered voters, but Cuccinelli takes a narrow lead when the sample is narrowed to likely voters. Cuccinelli is ahead by 5 percentage points among registered voters and 10 percentage points among likely voters in a Washington Post poll.
Both of the recent polls showed voters were less familiar with McAuliffe than Cuccinelli, suggesting he has room to hone his image. With questions about GreenTech and Franklin Pellets looming, McAuliffe led off his speech Thursday by recalling the paving business he started at age 14, and he made only a vague reference to his more current initiatives.
“Since that time, I’ve tried my hand starting, running, and investing in a wide variety of businesses, and along the way I’ve learned a lot of key lessons,” he said at the rally. “First, risk is inherent in our economy. Second, innovation isn’t easy.”
The race is likely to hinge on turnout in November, which generally favors Republicans in non-presidential election years in Virginia. Success for McAuliffe depends on motivating the younger voters, minorities, and women who helped President Obama win the swing state in 2008 and 2012. “It’s clear from the polls what we always knew, which is that we have to turn out our dropoff voters,” Charniele Herring, chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said before the McAuliffe rally.
McAuliffe may be more successful at ginning up the Democratic turnout by attacking his opponent’s conservative platform than touting by his own experience. “He’s got to get that Democratic base excited, and I think running a highly negative campaign against Cuccinelli is the only way he can win,” Sabato said.
But on Thursday, McAuliffe took only a couple, relatively mild swipes at Cuccinelli. After praising Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and state lawmakers for passing a sweeping transportation funding package, he said, “I was frankly amazed my opponent tried to block this very important legislation at each and every step.”
Cuccinelli’s opposition to the bipartisan deal to alleviate the state’s traffic congestion and his conservative positions on social issues were the first reasons people gave when asked why they came to the McAuliffe rally. “The reason I’m supporting Terry is that anybody is better than Cuccinelli,” said Stephen Vandivere, a retired software consultant from Centreville, leaning on his umbrella and wearing a fleece jacket on cool, rainy spring day.
“I think Cuccinelli would be a dangerous and ridiculous choice for governor,” said attorney Steve Rakin, who lives in Springfield. “He’s a right-wing, tea-party fanatic who would be a disaster for Virginia.”
One woman at the rally refused to give her name, barking that “I don’t like Cuccinelli at all and I’m a Democrat. That’s enough!” That may not be enough, however, for McAuliffe to pull off a victory in November. Over the next six months, his challenge will be to convince more Democrats not only of Cuccinelli’s shortcomings but of his own merits.