Cuccinelli, McAuliffe spar in Va. governor debate

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, listens as Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks at a Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in McLean, Va.
Pool,AP Photo/The Washington Post, Linda Davidson

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

McLean, Va. Ripples from the shutdown showdown on Capitol Hill and Ted Cruz's tactics to defund Obamacare spread Wednesday across the Potomac River and into the governor's race in Virginia -- understandably so in a state teeming with federal workers and defense contractors in its northern reaches.

The contest here between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has been overwhelmingly negative and character-driven, and Wednesday night's debate between the two was no exception. With six weeks to go until Election Day, each candidate pulled out everything but the kitchen sink and heaved it at his opponent, with the budget, women's issues, and gun rights commanding the spotlight.

The threat of a government shutdown only fanned the longstanding flames. Cuccinelli employed a line used by Cruz and other conservatives in the U.S. Senate, by asserting that McAuliffe would not sign a Virginia budget that didn't include the Medicaid expansion offered under the Affordable Care Act, and accusing McAuliffe of wanting to "shut down the Virginia government" unless the federal funds earmarked for the expansion were included.

But Cuccinelli, a conservative favorite, was cautious not to criticize Cruz's Capitol Hill strategy, which has energized his base. He advocated the defunding of Obamacare, but raised concerns about shutting down the government in order to do so. (Cruz will be campaigning in the state for his fellow Republican next month.)

For his part, McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser, distanced himself from both parties involved in the congressional conflict. "Shame on everybody until this gets done," McAuliffe said of the Sept. 30 continuing resolution deadline, including even President Obama in that indictment.

The man who presides over the state government in Richmond, Bob McDonnell, also surfaced in the debate as Cuccinelli tried to distance himself from the scandal-ridden governor. The attorney general has come under fire to receiving $18,000 in improper gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, who also gave thousands to McDonnell. The drama has been the subject of campaign ads in Virginia, and just 12 minutes into the debate, McAuliffe brought up the CEO to attack his opponent.

Cuccinelli has returned Williams' money and denied having any type of relationship with the donor. When asked why he received gifts from someone he didn't really know, Cuccinelli turned the tables. "Ironically, I met Mr. Williams through the governor," he said. He then launched into a series of attacks on McAuliffe, including his role in "selling" Lincoln bedroom access at the White House to Clinton-era Democratic donors. "If Terry's elected governor," Cuccinelli said, "we're going to have to change the state motto from sic semper tyrannis to quid pro quo."

The Republican candidate came prepared Wednesday with plenty of other attacks, hitting McAuliffe as an inexperienced legislator and calling him a shady businessman. "Governor is not a good entry-level job. And that's what it would be for Terry," he said.

McAuliffe wasted no time characterizing a Cuccinelli administration as bad for women, citing the candidate's support for a personhood amendment to the state constitution and championing anti-abortion laws. On a couple of occasions, McAuliffe brought up the controversial GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, trying to pin him to Cuccinelli.

McAuliffe is ahead in the race by 4.2 percentage points, according the RealClearPolitics polling average, fueled by his standing among women voters. He has been actively targeting this voter bloc and tried to capitalize on that advantage throughout the debate, repeatedly bringing up Cuccinelli's opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, which passed the House earlier this year without majority Republican support. Cuccinelli responded by citing domestic violence programs he supports and his efforts as a student at the University of Virginia to establish a sexual assault education group.

In a press conference with reporters afterward, Cuccinelli attributed his deficit among women to being "badly outspent on the airwaves."

The shooting at Washington Navy Yard also exposed a divide between the two men on gun laws. The mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 routinely puts commonwealth candidates' views under scrutiny, but the recentness of the Navy Yard massacre and the site's relative proximity warranted pointed questions Wednesday night.

McAuliffe reiterated his support for an assault weapons ban and expanded background checks, characterizing himself as a hunter who owns guns. "I was very dismayed by Senate this year," he said, referring to the failure of background check legislation in the chamber earlier this year. (Both of Virginia's Democratic senators backed the legislation.) Cuccinelli called for a focus on mental illness, and hit McAuliffe for having an "F-rating" from the National Rifle Association.

The debate was sponsored by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and NBC4 News. The candidates will square off again on Oct. 24 in Blacksburg.