GOP's McDonnell a drag on Cuccinelli in Va. Gov. race

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

A snapshot from the night of Nov. 3, 2009 in Virginia shows a trio of beaming, newly elected Republicans: Bob McDonnell (governor) in the middle with Bill Bolling (lieutenant governor) on his left and Ken Cuccinelli (attorney general) on his right, their hands raised together in celebration.

It was a happy time for the Virginia GOP. McDonnell was instantly catapulted onto the national stage after wresting the state's top job from Democrats just one year after Barack Obama won the Old Dominion -- the first time a presidential candidate from his party had been victorious there in nearly half a century. Three years later, after leading an economically thriving state in a nation beset by high unemployment and after delivering surpluses in an era of deficits, McDonnell was very much considered a rising party star with ambitions bigger than the commonwealth.

But, oh, how things have changed.

The optics of that Election Night scene might now be troublesome for Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee vying to replace the term-limited governor. McDonnell would have been a vaunted surrogate for the conservative Cuccinelli, who is trying to attract moderate Republicans and independents (but who also needs to fire up his base in a low-turnout election). Now, he might want McDonnell to stay away.

The governor's fall from grace has been well documented over the past few months as controversy surrounding his lucrative relationship with a benefactor, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, continues to bubble up. This week there were new revelations that McDonnell and his wife met separately with prosecutors in hopes of avoiding charges in the gifting scandal. The latest revelation also sparked questions about whether the governor would resign.

"It's sort of like a wet blanket that drapes over the entire race right now," a GOP strategist with ties to Virginia told RCP. "It takes what would have been a very strong surrogate and a star player off the field for us."

Polling suggests that the controversy has become a drag on Cuccinelli's chances in the race. A new Quinnipiac University survey of likely voters in Virginia found Terry McAuliffe leading him by 48 percent to 42 percent, propelled by the Democrat's support among women. Independent voters are divided, with 42 percent backing McAuliffe and 44 percent supporting Cuccinelli. Voters overall are divided when it comes to honesty and trustworthiness, though the Democrat fares slightly better: 39 percent view him as honest vs. 36 percent who don't; 42 percent see Cuccinelli as honest vs. 43 percent who don't. But, by a 56 percent to 31 percent margin, voters say Cuccinelli has the right experience to be governor, while 46 percent to 34 percent say the same about McAuliffe.

Notably, the poll was taken after McAuliffe had been berated in the media and by opponents in light of an SEC investigation regarding worker visas secured by his car company, GreenTech, and the way in which the firm attracted wealthy foreign investors. "It seems obvious that Gov. Bob McDonnell's political troubles are hurting fellow Republican Cuccinelli. Guilt by association may not be fair, but it sure is politically powerful," said the poll's assistant director, Peter Brown.

It may be more than just guilt by association. The Star Scientific controversy has been somewhat complicated for Cuccinelli from the beginning, as he also received thousands of dollars in gifts from Williams, including vacations and an expensive catered Thanksgiving dinner. Cuccinelli also owned stock in Williams' company. He initially failed to report the gifts and the $20,000 in holdings, which he has since sold. Cuccinelli held a press conference to explain his delay in disclosing the gifts, and told reporters he would not return them or pay Williams back, as McDonnell has done. ("There are some bells you can't unring," he explained.)

Cuccinelli removed himself from the cases involving McDonnell because of a conflict of interest, instead appointing Anthony Troy, a former Democratic attorney general, to handle it. The latter concluded that McDonnell didn't break any state laws, but Democrats are hoping to tar Cuccinelli for the $53,000 in taxpayer-funded legal fees stemming from the recusal.

McAuliffe released an ad Monday hitting Cuccinelli on the Star Scientific connection and for refusing to return the gifts. And Democrats welcome developments in the McDonnell case as an extra club to wield: They had originally planned to slam Cuccinelli for his stance on social issues in a state where independent and women voters are critical constituencies, and where young people and single women formed the bulk of Obama's winning coalition. They point to the attorney general's push for stricter rules on abortion clinics, his investigation of a University of Virginia climate change professor, and his challenge of a court decision rendering the state's anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional.

With the McDonnell controversy in the mix, they hope that when voters hear the words "Star Scientific," they also hear "Ken Cuccinelli." While some local Democrats are calling for McDonnell to resign, many haven't publically weighed in. And for perhaps good political reason: The longer McDonnell stays in the office, the longer the spotlight of scandal reflects off of him and onto Cuccinelli, they believe.

Bolling described McDonnell's issues as "harmful" to the man eager to succeed him. "It just makes Republicans look bad, and it reminds voters that Mr. Cuccinelli has his own Star Scientific problems," Bolling said in an interview with RCP.

Bolling dropped his bid for governor last year and briefly flirted with the idea of running as an independent. He has refused to endorse Cuccinelli, and has made plain his disagreements with him.

But the Cuccinelli campaign argues that while there may be more to come in the McDonnell controversy, the scandal as it pertains to the attorney general is over. Meanwhile, the campaign argues, the SEC investigation into GreenTech is only just beginning. Cuccinelli has been hammering away at McAuliffe on the issue, and he believes it tarnishes his credentials as a businessman who can bring jobs to Virginia, as the company that McAuliffe co-founded (and has since resigned from) has a plant in Mississippi and hasn't created the jobs it promised. The Republican candidate has also portrayed his opponent as a Washington wheeler-dealer driven by personal ambition, and a Bill Clinton confidant who sold access to the White House and has made millions from shady business deals.

At the same time, Cuccinelli has also been trying to distance himself from McDonnell. He unsuccessfully pushed the state legislature to convene a special session on ethics, and has called for tougher caps on the size and types of gifts public officials can receive.

The two Virginians aren't close and don't interact much other than for their jobs. McDonnell originally backed Bolling before the lieutenant governor dropped out. And they had already established two very different national personas. Cuccinelli also opposed what has become McDonnell's signature achievement: a bipartisan $600 million transportation bill that pleased the business community for its investments in highway improvements and irked Tea Party conservatives with its accompanying higher taxes.

But Cuccinelli also has declined to call for McDonnell to resign, despite repeated questions about the issue at campaign stops and his own description of the case as "inconsistent" with state traditions. He has also focused much of his campaign on re-branding himself to Virginia voters by holding town-hall meetings on jobs and education reform. This week, he sought to appeal with women with a new ad about combating sexual assault.

Observers in the Old Dominion expect this race to remain close -- and nasty. The two candidates have been beating each other up on air and in debates and forums, hoping to motivate their respective bases with a dislike for and distrust of the opponent. The Quinnipiac poll found neither man particularly likeable: By a 41-35 percent margin, voters have an unfavorable view of Cuccinelli. They also disapprove, by 46-42 percent, of his performance as attorney general. Voters are divided, 34-33 percent, over whether they have a favorable view of McAuliffe.

"This campaign has become a rapid race to the bottom," Bolling said. "The challenge McAuliffe faces is that he has to define himself to the voters. ... The challenge Cuccinelli faces is, many voters in Virginia feel he is many ways too extreme. He has to try to redefine himself." Still, with both campaigns embroiled in some type of scandal, each is hoping for more shoes to drop -- on the other side.

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