Amid a gifts scandal that is the subject of state and federal investigations, McDonnell has gone to great lengths — traveling to Afghanistan to visit troops, touting his accomplishments on a seven-day, statewide tour — to show he remains engaged and in charge as governor.
But he cannot even pretend to have a role in the governor’s race, a marquee contest that less than a year ago looked like his chance to plop a cherry atop his substantial legacy. In addition to spoiling his résumé, McDonnell’s struggles — and his exile — are widely seen as a pall on this year’s entire GOP ticket. Fundraising has fallen off. Ethics reform is a common campaign promise on both sides. It will be hard for McDonnell to escape blame if his party suffers deep losses at the polls nine days from now.
In the meantime, Cuccinelli and most other Republicans want nothing to do with him.
McDonnell has been scratched from Cuccinelli events, replaced by out-of-state headliners who still fit the description of “GOP rising star.” Cuccinelli mentions the governor in just one TV ad, and it’s not to put his arm around him: “Cuccinelli personally launched the investigation into Bob McDonnell,” it says. Pressed on a radio show to say when he will campaign with Cuccinelli, McDonnell managed only this: “Well, uh, if and when I show up, you’ll know.”
Prevented from seeking back-to-back terms, Virginia governors normally try to win a symbolic “second term” by vigorously promoting their party’s candidate for the job. This time around, McDonnell and the GOP have concluded that the best thing he can do for Cuccinelli is keep his distance.
It’s a tremendous turnabout for a governor who just last year was in the mix for the vice-presidential pick and served as a regular Mitt Romney surrogate. Not only Cuccinelli but also the Democratic candidate for governor, Terry McAuliffe, were modeling their campaigns on his “Bob’s for Jobs” approach.
Now, instead of raising millions for Cuccinelli, McDonnell is seeking donations to his own legal defense fund. Speculation about his future, once centered on a run for president in 2016, has shifted to whether — or when — he will be indicted.
“I think the scandal is about the best definition of a game changer as you can get,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “He was one of the most popular governors of an emerging swing state. I think the scandal immediately changed how people evaluated him and his prospects.”
For some Virginia Republicans, what has transpired represents more than a political downfall.
“It’s a personal tragedy,” said Earle C. Williams, a retired defense-contracting executive from Northern Virginia and McDonnell supporter who ran for governor as a Republican in 1993. “I think he had great promise, and it seems to me that that promise has gone away.