What Virginia Voters Really Think of Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli

Scandals, probes, and mudslinging are making this governor’s race historically unpleasant.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, left, greets Democratic challenger Terry McCauliffe, right, during the Virginia Bar Association convention debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. Saturday, July 20, 2013.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Aug. 8, 2013, 2 a.m.

Pity the Vir­gin­ia voter.

That this year’s gov­ernor’s race would be a spec­tac­u­larly nasty af­fair comes as no sur­prise, con­sid­er­ing it pits a former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man (Terry McAul­iffe) against a hero of the re­li­gious Right (Ken Cuc­cinelli).

What’s un­ex­pec­ted are the rap­idly churn­ing scan­dals that have not only es­cal­ated the mud­sling­ing between the two nom­in­ees, they’ve giv­en it an un­der­pin­ning of ac­tu­al sub­stance. The Wash­ing­ton Post has doc­u­mented how Cuc­cinelli ac­cep­ted money and gifts from a busi­ness­man whose close ties to Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell and his fam­ily are un­der fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion. Pub­lished re­ports also re­vealed that McAul­iffe’s former elec­tric-car com­pany, GreenTech, is be­ing in­vest­ig­ated by the Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion in con­nec­tion with its for­eign in­vestors.

With new rev­el­a­tions about these be­lea­guered can­did­ates com­ing out reg­u­larly, voters in the com­mon­wealth are fa­cing a his­tor­ic­ally un­pleas­ant di­lemma.

“Hon­estly, I don’t really care for either one,” said Mike Figgs, a 40-year-old pur­chas­ing man­ager, try­ing to be po­lite. “It def­in­itely sends a bad mes­sage to voters either way. What do you do?”

What do you do? Figgs was among about two dozen voters in­ter­viewed Tues­day at Dunkin’ Donuts shops in North­ern Vir­gin­ia who ex­pressed a range of re­ac­tions not so dif­fer­ent from the so-called five stages of grief.

Deni­al: “We can’t con­clude any­thing un­til the in­vest­ig­a­tions are over, right?” said Robert Fini, a 56-year-old tech­no­logy pro­ject man­ager.

An­ger: “It shows poor mor­al char­ac­ter,” said Mike Smith, a 32-year-old gov­ern­ment con­tract­or. “They should know bet­ter. It’s not just cor­rup­tion but the ap­pear­ance of cor­rup­tion.”

Bar­gain­ing: “I wish I had more than two can­did­ates,” said Leslie Camp­bell, a 53-year-old home­maker. “I wish there was a third choice.”

De­pres­sion: “It’s aw­ful to be so apathet­ic,” said Guar­av Sir­in, a 40-year-old dir­ect­or at a tech­no­logy com­pany. “I prob­ably won’t vote is what it comes down to, un­for­tu­nately. What dif­fer­ence does it make?”

And fi­nally, ac­cept­ance: “There’s al­ways go­ing to be scan­dals. They’re politi­cians, right?” sighed Ben Tuben, a 23-year-old busi­ness ana­lyst. “It’s dis­cour­aging, but I will still vote.”

The can­did­ates were de­scribed al­tern­ately as “a jack­ass,” “a dirty politi­cian,” “sketchy,” and more awk­wardly, as “just not good can­did­ates.” Not a single voter was en­thu­si­ast­ic about either nom­in­ee, fore­shad­ow­ing par­ti­cip­a­tion even lower than the typ­ic­ally de­pressed turnout in a non-pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in an odd-numbered year.

“The ads ab­so­lutely turn me off,” said Laura Es­sick, a 59-year-old ex­ec­ut­ive as­sist­ant. “I just won’t pay any at­ten­tion.”

A lower turnout is widely viewed as bad news for McAul­iffe, who is de­pend­ing on the young voters, wo­men, and minor­it­ies who helped Pres­id­ent Obama carry the state twice. Gubernat­ori­al voters tend to be older and less di­verse; those groups tend to vote Re­pub­lic­an. A num­ber of voters in­ter­viewed said they would likely be forced to fall back on their party al­le­gi­ance to make a choice, leav­ing in­de­pend­ent voters feel­ing par­tic­u­larly be­wildered.

What’s more, the de­luge of at­tack ads at a time when voters are barely tuned in has left many with hazy re­col­lec­tions. “Something about bor­row­ing money and not pay­ing back loans?” asked Jas­mine Smith, a 30-year-old tech­no­logy con­sult­ant. “I got to make sure I make the right de­cision based on the facts.”

“Isn’t Cuc­cinelli the one who took money for his daugh­ter’s wed­ding?” asked Pete Baroody, a 35-year-old teach­er. Told that it was Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell’s daugh­ter — not Cuc­cinelli’s — who got fin­an­cial help for her wed­ding from busi­ness­man John­nie Wil­li­ams, Baroody sighed. “It’s really con­fus­ing.”

Such con­fu­sion doesn’t bode well for Cuc­cinelli, who has gone to great lengths to try to dis­tance him­self from the gov­ernor. Most re­cently, he’s called for a spe­cial le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion to take up eth­ics re­form, a re­quest that the gov­ernor turned down. But mostly both can­did­ates have fought fire with fire, try­ing to de­flect at­ten­tion away from their own scan­dal by draw­ing at­ten­tion to the scan­dal plaguing the oth­er guy. Cuc­cinelli’s latest ad on the GreenTech in­vest­ig­a­tion is lit­er­ally titled “Scan­dal.” The re­sponse from the McAul­iffe cam­paign, without a trace of irony: “Ken Cuc­cinelli Try­ing to Dis­tract from On­go­ing Scan­dals.”

“I know very little about any­thing but I know I’ve heard bad things about both of them,” said one fe­male voter who de­clined to give her name, in part be­cause she is so dis­gus­ted with the race. “Je­sus, who the hell am I sup­posed to vote for?”

Good ques­tion. The at­tack ads cur­rently on tele­vi­sion may not be of much help. After an ini­tial spurt of in­tro­duct­ory, pos­it­ive ads, both can­did­ates have gone al­most ex­clus­ively neg­at­ive. The fin­ger-point­ing between the two cam­paigns bears an un­canny re­semb­lance to two school­yard brawl­ers hauled in­to the prin­cip­al’s of­fice. “They star­ted it!” the Cuc­cinelli cam­paign said of the Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic Party’s Ju­ly 12 at­tack ad, the first in the race.   

“Already this race is far more neg­at­ive than any in re­cent Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al elec­tion his­tory,” said Quentin Kidd, dir­ect­or of the Wason Cen­ter for Pub­lic Policy at Chris­toph­er New­port Uni­versity. “Both cam­paigns are loaded for bear, and seem to prefer shoot­ing first at any op­por­tun­ity. I think voters are go­ing to have a hard time choos­ing, be­cause by the time Elec­tion Day rolls around both can­did­ates are prob­ably go­ing to be so tar­nished, and the fo­cus will have been on the per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al fail­ings of the two can­did­ates as op­posed to policy.”

A McAul­iffe spokes­man claimed both cam­paigns have spent about the same amount of money on pos­it­ive ads, but the Demo­crats are lead­ing when it comes to at­tack ads. McAul­iffe has spent $2.3 mil­lion on tele­vi­sion, com­pared with $2.2 mil­lion by Cuc­cinelli, ac­cord­ing to the Vir­gin­ia Pub­lic Ac­cess Pro­ject, but McAul­iffe has also trans­ferred more than $3 mil­lion to the Demo­crat­ic Party of Vir­gin­ia — which in turn has run three anti-Cuc­cinelli ads.

One voter headed in­to Dunkin’ Donuts on Wed­nes­day morn­ing looked totally flum­moxed when asked simply, “What do you think of these can­did­ates?”

“I think,” he said, “I need a cup of cof­fee.”

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