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The gubernatorial election in Virginia: beyond local politics


Elections for governor are ordinarily a local matter. However occasionally they rise to national prominence, especially in the case of large, swing states. This coming November, residents of Virginia – nicknamed “Mother of Presidents” for the eight who were born there (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor and Woodrow Wilson) – will go to the polls to choose the successor to Republican Bob McDonnell, who is term-limited and therefore not running. The battle pitching Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and his GOP opponent Ken Cuccinelli has already turned into a nasty trench war. The front pages of newspapers are filled with plenty of mudslinging but little of substance. And the public’s attention is several notches down from this time last year, when the campaign for the presidential election was in full swing. “Just look at voter turnout in the last two presidential elections in Virginia versus the last two gubernatorial elections,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.  “For the presidency it was 74.5% in 2008 and 71.8% in 2012, whereas for the governorship it was 45.0% in 2005 and only 40.4% in 2009.”

However, with oversized personalities and ambitions that stretch well beyond the borders of the Commonwealth, financial scandals that have attached themselves to both men in the running and a fierce ideological divide between the two camps, the outcome of this race is sure to reverberate nationwide.

Ken Cuccinelli is Virginia’s Attorney General and has long been a stalwart for the social conservative movement, opposed as he is to abortion and even contraception. He comes from humble origins, is deeply religious and is the father of seven children. He has flair for right-wing economic populism and, unlike Mitt Romney, the credentials to go with it. In fact, the website Politico recently noted that Cuccinelli is trying to flip the script from last year’s presidential campaign, arguing that he has what it takes to fight for the middle class against the wealth and cronyism of his challenger McAuliffe, a successful businessman and long-time democratic operative. In unmistakable Republican orthodoxy, however, Cuccinelli is the one pushing for deep tax cuts in exchange for so far vague promises of closing loopholes and eliminating deductions from the tax code.

In the meantime, he has been ensnared, alongside Governor McDonnell, in a campaign finance scandal that he is having a hard time shaking off. Since 2011, he and his family received $18,000 in gifts from Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, a dietary supplement maker. He has so far been cleared of any wrongdoing, but Democrats are asking him to return the gifts nevertheless, as a symbolic gesture to voters. Cuccinelli is not budging. (For his part, Governor McDonnell, whose family got more than $120,000 worth of presents and loans out of his relationship with Williams, is under investigation and has been repaying his debt).

McAuliffe’s ratings have also been affected by a scandal of his own. GreenTech Automotive, an electric car company he co-founded, has recently come under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The company allegedly solicited international investors with promises of guaranteed returns and under a federal program, which the SEC fears is regularly abused, that offers visas to foreigners who contribute $500,000 or more to a business that creates new American jobs. McAuliffe, who is a long-time entrepreneur (the fact that he started his first business at age 14 is an integral part of his campaign’s lore), launched GreenTech in 2009 after another, unsuccessful, run for the Virginia governorship, but resigned as chairman in 2012. Among other things, during his time at the helm of GreenTech, he promised to set up shop in Virginia but instead ended up building a factory in Mississippi, which had enticed him with better tax incentives – a move that might have made business sense back then but is not bound to look good in the eyes of voters today.

Besides for his career in the private sector, McAuliffe is known for his impressive fundraising prowess and his close ties to the Clintons, making him the kind of Washington “insider” that many people across Virginia, and the US, despise. He served as the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005 and also co-chaired Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign as well as Hillary Clinton’s 2008 White House bid. Which is why observers nationwide will closely watch his performance in Virginia. “If McAuliffe loses, it is going to hurt Hillary Clinton,” says Robert Roberts, Professor of Political Science at James Madison University in Virginia. “Clinton has held fundraisers for him and the storyline goes that if he fails, this is going to weaken her if she chooses to run in 2016, since she has to prove she can win some Southern states.”

Cuccinelli’s run is also viewed as having implications at the national level. In fact, he might be going for the governorship right now but many people believe he is already angling for the White House, potentially as early as 2016. “If Rand Paul represents the libertarian wing of the Republican Party and Chris Christie represents the more traditional, business-friendly GOP, Cuccinelli, like Rick Santorum, represents social conservatives,” says Professor Roberts. “So the question is, would Cuccinelli be able to capture this constituency if he were to get in?”

The race has been practically tied from the beginning and it is still too early to tell who might come out ahead. This is due to the fact that a large chunk of Virginia voters are not yet paying attention and those who are, are not entirely sold on the choices at hand. So much so that current Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, who wanted to run all along but dropped out in deference to Cuccinelli, who had stronger conservative credentials to appeal to the party base, is reportedly considering jumping into the race last minute. “I believe a lot of Republicans would now prefer Bolling,” says Toni-Michelle C. Travis, an Associate Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University in Virginia. “They fear Cuccinelli is so conservative and extreme that voters might want a more moderate candidate, and that would be Bolling.”

The race for governor of Virginia is important nationally not only in terms of personalities but also in terms of issues. At stake, for example, is the future of the expansion of Medicaid – the federal healthcare program for the poor – mandated by the health reform law known as Obamacare. The federal government has subsidies ready to go out to the states that choose to participate in it, to help them widen the pool of eligible recipients. McAuliffe would give this his go-ahead whereas Cuccinelli, who is a staunch opponent of Obamacare and was the first Attorney General to sue against it in 2010, would instead block it.  

Secondly, Virginia’s changing demographics, particularly the rapidly growing number of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, resembles that of the US as a whole and therefore might prove to be an important test of how the two parties – and in particular the GOP, which has suffered tremendously with Latino voters in 2012 – handle these newly important constituencies.

In a nutshell, the personalities, dynamics and political fights dominating the 2013 election season in Virginia are nothing less than a preview of things to come nationwide in 2016.