HOW DOES TERRY McAuliffe, an old Clinton hand from New York, win the Virginia governorship? Simple: He talks about women’s issues and paints his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, as a dangerous extremist.
Energy policy, not social issues, was the assigned topic of the late-August event in the Washington suburb of Arlington where McAuliffe recently spoke. But polls showed McAuliffe with a double-digit lead among the commonwealth’s women voters, so the candidate stuck to his campaign’s message: Ken Cuccinelli hates women, hates gay people, and hates science too.
“We cannot be putting walls up around Virginia by attacking women’s rights, scientists or gay Virginians,” McAuliffe said in his opening remarks at the Consumer Energy Alliance forum. “This is a fundamental difference in this race.… Ken Cuccinelli has shown that he will spend his time in office fighting social, divisive, ideological battles, and those battles have defined his career.” He held up a copy of the Washington Post, which circulates in northern Virginia, and read from a story that, as McAuliffe tells it, details Cuccinelli’s ties to a “radical group” that allegedly “fought against adequate child support because they think it is ‘punitive’ to men.” This was not an invitation to discuss the state Virginia’s family law, but an attempt to depict his opponent as a frightening right-wing ogre. And of course, he characterized Cuccinelli as being opposed to women’s health care—and to women generally. Cuccinelli, he pointed out, was one of just a handful of state attorneys general who refrained from signing a letter earlier this year urging Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
Was this a fair, accurate, or honest description of Cuccinelli’s record? Of course not. But Terry McAuliffe doesn’t give a damn about fairness, accuracy, or honesty. He’s a Democrat trying to win an election. And given that Cuccinelli—just four years after being elected Virginia’s attorney general by a 15-point landslide margin—now finds himself badly trailing, the strategy seems to be working.
WHO IS THIS horrible anti-science Republican? The man who hates children and, his Democrat opponent insinuates, is in favor of violence against women? No such person exists, but such is the troglodytic caricature of Ken Cuccinelli that the McAuliffe campaign has spent months creating. It’s a task made easier by the Washington Post, which seems to consider publishing campaign propaganda for Democrats to be its job, so that all McAuliffe needed to do was quote the Post’s “reporting” to make his case. But this is only one of the many problems facing Republicans as they approach the fall campaign in a bellwether off-year election.
The GOP’s lopsided victory in Virginia four years ago was heralded as proof of a conservative resurgence after President Obama’s 2008 election. Cuccinelli was elected attorney general with 57 percent of the vote over Democrat Steve Shannon. Republican Bob McDonnell won the governorship by a whopping 17-point margin, 58 percent to Democrat Creigh Deeds’s 41 percent. The GOP gained a net six seats in the state’s House of Delegates. Coupled with Chris Christie’s upset win in the New Jersey governor’s race, the GOP’s Virginia sweep signaled that the Tea Party uprising had successfully mobilized resistance to the Democratic agenda. That proved an accurate weathervane for the 2010 mid-terms, in which Republicans won a net gain of 63 seats in the U.S. House and finally pried the Speaker’s gavel from the cold grip of Nancy Pelosi.
But the grassroots enthusiasm has since faded, and tangible accomplishments under Speaker John Boehner haven’t amounted to much. After Obama carried Virginia in his successful re-election campaign last fall, a discouraged mood took hold among many Republicans.
Virginia is geographically, economically, demographically, and politically diverse. In between the coastal playgrounds of Virginia Beach and the Appalachian coal mines of the state’s southwestern corner, vast expanses of the Old Dominion remain rural and reliably Republican. What has made the state more competitive for Democrats in recent years is the growing influence of northern Virginia, a vast expanse of suburbia that now reaches all the way to the Blue Ridge foothills of Fauquier County.
Most of American suburbia hearkens to the Republican Party’s limited-government message. But the wealth of suburban D.C. is to a great degree derived from federal revenue. Three of the suburban counties—Loudon, Fairfax, and Arlington—rank among the richest in the United States, with median household incomes over $100,000. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama ran up a margin of about 200,000 votes in the D.C. suburbs, winning Fairfax County by 90,000 votes, Arlington County by 47,000, the city of Alexandria by 32,000, and Prince William County by 30,000. It was more than enough to turn the tide: Obama defeated Mitt Romney in Virginia by only about 150,000 votes statewide.
One glance at the 2012 exit polls explains a lot about Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign tactics. Romney won 51 percent of the male vote, but Obama pulled in 54 percent of women. Any Democrat seeking to exploit this gender gap understands it involves basic cultural values. Romney actually won among married women (53 to 46 percent), but lost unmarried women by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, 64 to 35 percent. Religious voters favored Romney, who won nearly two-thirds of Protestants who attend services weekly, while voters who say abortion should always be legal favored Obama more than 4-to-1.
It’s no wonder, then, that Democrats spent the summer hammering away at Cuccinelli’s stance on abortion and other social issues. In May, Planned Parenthood’s political action committee launched TV ads depicting the Republican as an intrusive busybody:
That Ken Cuccinelli—he’s running for governor, and he keeps showing up where he doesn’t belong. He’s trying to put himself in the middle of our most personal decisions. He sponsored legislation to end funding for Planned Parenthood. And Ken Cuccinelli wants to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s health is in danger.
Planned Parenthood followed up in August with a mailer that called Cuccinelli “extremely dangerous for women.”
Crude as it was, the message clearly had an impact. An August poll by Quinnipiac University showed the gubernatorial race a dead heat among men. McAuliffe’s 12-point advantage among women (50-38 percent) entirely accounted for the Democrat’s overall 48-42 lead. In much the same way that the Obama campaign leveraged its early fundraising advantage to run negative ads defining Romney in key swing states last year, McAuliffe has used his cash superiority to tarnish Cuccinelli’s image, especially among women.
McAuliffe’s prowess as a fundraiser—he has never held public office, but was a top money man for Bill Clinton’s campaigns, chairman of the Democrat National Committee for four years, and later chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign—is quite nearly his only real asset as a candidate. He amassed more than a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage ($6 million to Cuccinelli’s $2.7 million) by the end of June, and spent much of it on TV ads attacking his opponent not just as an extremist, but also as corrupt.
The corruption charges involve Jonnie Williams, CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based nutritional supplement company. Governor McDonnell is under federal investigation for the gifts he and his wife accepted from Williams, who also provided free private jet travel and other gifts valued at $18,000 to Cuccinelli. An investigation cleared Cuccinelli of wrongdoing, but that hasn’t prevented McAuliffe from using the scandal in attack ads with the tagline: “Ken Cuccinelli—helping himself, not us.”
IF MCAULIFFE WANTS to make the fall campaign about corruption, however, his own financial shenanigans are certainly tempting targets for counterattack. “First, an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security,” begins one Cuccinelli campaign ad. “Now, a second federal investigation into Terry McAuliffe’s shady business deals, and a growing scandal.” The investigations involve McAuliffe’s GreenTech Automotive, an unprofitable boondoggle that he began three years ago, promising to create thousands of American jobs building environmentally friendly mini-cars. McAuliffe first tried to persuade Virginia to provide incentives for a factory in the Commonwealth, but the state’s economic development officials were profoundly skeptical. One reason for their skepticism: McAuliffe planned to use a federal visa program, known as EB-5, to raise funds from immigrant investors. The foreign funding for this visas-for-cash scheme was funneled through a company headed by Hillary Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham.
After getting a cold shoulder from Virginia officials dubious about GreenTech’s prospects, McAuliffe instead accepted development incentives to build a plant in rural Mississippi, but that hasn’t worked out very well either. In return for a $2 million loan from the Mississippi Development Authority, GreenTech was supposed to build a $60 million plant employing 350 workers in Tunica County by 2014. At a July 2012 event celebrating the launch of the project, McAuliffe promised even more, telling the New York Times that GreenTech would create 900 jobs by the end of 2012 and build 10,000 cars in 2013. What happened instead has been a failure almost as spectacular as the bankruptcy of Solyndra, the solar-energy company that exposed the economic fallacies of Obama’s “green jobs” initiative. McAuliffe’s company employs only about 100 people, and a Washington Post reporter who visited GreenTech’s Mississippi plant counted about 40 cars in the parking lot of the facility that was “producing no more than one car every two or three days.” In fact, former employees told the Post’s Fredrick Kunkle, “management sometimes asked workers to pretend that they were assembling cars when potential investors visited, usually from China, and that employees would remove parts from previously assembled cars and reattach them.”
Between its obvious economic failure and the shady financing that has attracted the scrutiny of federal investigations, GreenTech has proven to be McAuliffe’s biggest liability in the 2013 campaign, in which he was the only Democrat to seek the gubernatorial nomination. McAuliffe lost the 2009 Democratic primary to Creigh Deeds by more than 20 points, but this time around, his superior fundraising essentially cleared the field, enabling him to run unopposed for his party’s nomination and to begin targeting Cuccinelli early. Despite those advantages and the polls showing McAuliffe steadily leading as the campaign entered September, there were solid reasons to expect a Cuccinelli comeback.
“The thing is, McAuliffe doesn’t have any record to run on. He can only run on the ‘war on women,’” said one Virginia Republican operative who asked to remain anonymous. Late-summer polls showing McAuliffe with a substantial lead don’t mean much, the operative said. “People tune out until Labor Day.”
If Labor Day weekend marks the true start of the campaign, Cuccinelli was ready for kickoff, airing a TV ad before Virginia Tech’s season opener against defending national champion Alabama: “This fall some important battles will play out across Virginia. There will be a winner and a loser. Obviously, I’m talking about college football. Let’s go Hokies!” (Though in the ad, Cuccinelli admits he is a “Wahoo,” as University of Virginia fans call themselves.) His emphasis on his ties to the state may give him an edge against McAuliffe. Neither candidate was born in the Old Dominion—Cuccinelli is from New Jersey; McAuliffe from New York—but since graduating from UVA in 1990, the Republican has worked his entire career in Virginia, earning a law degree at George Mason and winning election to a state senate seat in Fairfax County in 2002. As a legislator, he was an across-the-board conservative. A Catholic father of seven, Cuccinelli has been unflinchingly pro-life and strongly opposed to gay marriage—57 percent of Virginia voters approved a 2006 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages—which has made him a favorite of the state’s religious conservatives.
Cuccinelli has an appetite for the hard work of retail politics, shaking every hand he can reach at parades and other campaign events. “Every single race, he’s been outspent.…He just keeps working his butt off,” the Virginia GOP operative noted. While McAuliffe and Cuccinelli had only one July debate in the early going of the campaign, the Democrat won’t be able to avoid his Republican opponent forever and, the operative said, “On policy, Cuccinelli knows his stuff.”
Confidence that Cuccinelli can fight his way back to beat McAuliffe might be even higher were it not for the amateurish campaign of the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson. Nominated on the fourth ballot at the state GOP convention in May, Jackson is a conservative firebrand who was strongly backed by Tea Party activists, but his provocative rhetoric (e.g., calling Democrats the “anti-God” party in a radio interview) has caused cringing embarrassment for some Republicans. Both Cuccinelli and state Sen. Mark Obenshain, the Republican candidate to replace Cuccinelli as attorney general, have distanced themselves from some of Jackson’s controversial statements. Jackson is a “drag” on the GOP ticket, said the Republican operative, placing much of the blame on Jackson’s campaign staff: “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Cuccinelli, meanwhile, kept his focus squarely on the issues—and on his opponent—even while McAuliffe tried to turn the late-August energy forum into a debate over women’s issues. Describing the Democrat as having “a federal investigation hanging over his head,” Cuccinelli said, “Terry’s GreenTech failure and Solyndra’s failure are stark reminders that government doesn’t pick winners, they pick losers—at your expense.” Cuccinelli also accused McAuliffe of waging a “war on coal” (a key industry in southwestern Virginia), and described one of McAuliffe’s key campaign contributors, Tom Steyer, as a “left-wing radical environmentalist.” After accusing the Democrat of flip-flopping on offshore drilling, which McAuliffe opposed in 2009 but now says he supports, Cuccinelli said, “Terry wants you to believe he’s suddenly for offshore drilling, but you can’t trust him on that.” This is the theme of one of Cuccinelli’s TV attack ads about GreenTech, too, which ends, “You can’t trust Terry McAuliffe.”
Whether or not Virginia voters can trust McAuliffe, though, there is nevertheless the chance they will elect him. Asked for his bottom-line assessment of the race, the anonymous GOP operative concluded: “I think Cuccinelli wins, but it’s going to be close.”