HOT SPRINGS, Va.
Virginia’s gubernatorial races always get special attention as the nation’s premier political contest a year after a presidential election.
That’s additionally true this year because the race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is a microcosm of the battles on social issues in many states — but the only one where voters will render a verdict in 2013.
Virginia has morphed politically over the last half century from solidly Democratic to reliably Republican to closely contested in both federal and state races, including President Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012.
McAuliffe, 56, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, supports abortion rights, gay marriage, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and accepting increased federal Medicaid funds. Cuccinelli, 44, currently state attorney general, favors stricter limits on abortion, opposes gay marriage and the Medicaid funds, and has said he believes homosexuality is “against nature and harmful to society.”
Like Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican elected four years ago, Cuccinelli has sought to downplay divisive social issues, declaring in the initial debate before the Virginia Bar Association here last Saturday, “I will focus on the middle class and job creation first.”
He called McAuliffe “the only candidate in this race who has chased business out of Virginia,” citing his decision to locate an electric car company he co-founded in Mississippi, rather than southern Virginia. “Terry had his choice,” he said. “And he picked Terry over the people of Virginia. So you picked Mississippi. So run for governor of Mississippi.”
McAuliffe defended that as a business decision and called Cuccinelli “the true Trojan horse of Virginia politics,” adding, “You come in pretending to be one thing and you end up being something else.” Four years ago, he charged, his rival “promised he would focus on job creation. We know he has spent the last four years on a social ideological agenda.”
He criticized Cuccinelli’s plan to cut state taxes by $1.4 billion while refusing to name the tax loopholes he’d eliminate to pay for it and noted he backed McDonnell’s program to relieve northern Virginia’s transportation woes while Cuccinelli opposed it.
Their sharpest exchanges came over ethical issues that have enmeshed McDonnell and touched Cuccinelli, who received $18,000 in stock and gifts from a businessman whose larger gifts and loans to the governor and his wife are under federal investigation.
Cuccinelli initially failed to include businessman Jonnie Williams’ gifts on his annual disclosure form, but a Richmond prosecutor concluded there was no evidence he violated any laws by adding them later.
McAuliffe misspoke twice in declaring that the report said Cuccinelli should be prosecuted and that a judge, rather than the attorney general himself, moved the investigation out of his office.
The debate, one of only two both candidates have agreed to, reflected the sharp differences, harsh negativity and closeness of a campaign in which Cuccinelli is challenging McAuliffe’s Virginia credentials and McAuliffe says the Republican is out of the mainstream.
Polls currently show McAuliffe slightly ahead, but the outcome may depend on whether he attracts enough African-Americans and other Obama voters, who mostly stayed home when McDonnell won the governorship in 2009.
One target is the staunchly conservative records of both Cuccinelli and his running mates in the separate contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general. CNN last week quoted incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who has withheld support from Cuccinelli, as saying this is “the most ideologically driven ticket that we have seen in the history of our state.”
A McAuliffe victory would mark the first time in 40 years that the party winning the presidency won Virginia’s governorship a year later; a Cuccinelli triumph would encourage tea party brigades elsewhere.
Either way, the outcome will likely resonate in 2014, when most states will elect governors and legislatures.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.