Gov. Robert McDonnell’s approval rating drops to new low, poll finds


Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell talks with the media after participating in a roundtable discussion on K-12 education reform at T.C. Williams High School on Aug. 15 in Alexandria. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s approval rating has plummeted to a new low amid a gifts scandal that has bled into the race to succeed him and left Virginians hungry for ethics reform, according to a new Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll.

Fewer than half of the state’s registered voters approve of the job the term-limited Republican is doing or say he has “high personal and moral ethical standards,” the survey found, even as the vast majority of voters say he should not resign over the gifts debacle.

Once one of the nation’s most popular governors, McDonnell had been a possible nominee for vice president last year and appeared to be positioning himself for a presidential bid in 2016. But his final year in office has been consumed by state and federal investigations in connection to luxury gifts and $145,000 that a Richmond-area businessman provided to the governor and his family.

Forty-nine percent of Virginia voters approve of the job McDonnell is doing, down from a term high of 64 percent in a Post poll in May. That represents a record low for McDonnell and a rare low generally for a state in which governors routinely win broad approval during their four-year terms. Forty-seven percent say he has high personal moral and ethical standards, down from 61 percent in May.

McDonnell’s biggest loss of support came from the moderate voters who had been stalwart supporters during his tenure, partly because the longtime social conservative stressed economic issues under the campaign slogan “Bob’s for Jobs!”

Virginia Gov. McDonnell takes hit on ethics

Despite the drop-off, the poll finds McDonnell’s supporters continue to outnumber his detractors — 39 percent disapprove of his performance — and he remains on balance more popular in the state than President Obama. The survey finds little desire for McDonnell to step down before his term ends; 26 percent say he should, while 67 percent say he should not.

Meghan Khaitan, 43, a stay-at-home mom from Ashburn, lived in California during the recall election that removed then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) from office in 2003. She said she would rather not see that sort of upheaval again. It’s enough for her that the gift-giving was exposed and that McDonnell, in her view, is politically finished.

“I don't think there’s an appetite for something that extreme,” said Khaitan, a political independent who voted for him. “I thought McDonnell at the beginning was a pretty effective leader. He made a bunch of bad decisions and I’m glad I know about them because maybe he would have pursued a higher office. And I don’t think that’s in the cards for him anymore. It’s a shame. These people have so many opportunities, and they find a way to muddy their lives.”

The Post first reported in late March that Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. paid the $15,000 catering tab at the wedding of a McDonnell daughter around the time that the governor and first lady Maureen McDonnell promoted the company’s nutritional supplement, Anatabloc. In the months since, The Post has reported that Williams provided a Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree to the first lady, a $10,000 engagement gift to another daughter, and $120,000 that McDonnell has characterized as loans. Williams also lent the governor his lake house and Ferrari.

McDonnell has apologized to Virginians and returned the gifts, but he said he provided no state favors to Williams or Star Scientific, itself the subject of shareholder lawsuits alleging inflated product claims.

Just over half of voters, 51 percent, disapprove of McDonnell’s handling of the situation after being told about his receipt and return of the gifts, as well as his apology. “Strong” disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by more than 2 to 1.

James Rohr, an independent voter who leans Democratic, did not vote for McDonnell four years ago but said he has been pleasantly surprised by his performance, particularly after the governor broke with GOP orthodoxy to support a tax-heavy $1.4 billion-a-year transportation funding overhaul early this year. Rohr said he could have overlooked the gifts scandal if it had involved only the $15,000 wedding payment. But as it churned on and on, McDonnell lost Rohr’s support.

Timeline: Star Scientific and Gov. McDonnell

“You only do that once, and it’s a special thing, and you’re stressed out — I could see having a lapse,” said Rohr, 52, who does computer work and lives in Fauquier County. “But it seems it wasn’t a lapse. It was more business as usual.”

Absent the scandal — as well as Virginia law prohibiting governors from serving back-to-back terms — Rohr said he would gladly vote for McDonnell over Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat running for the post.

The Star Scientific scandal has shaped the governor’s race between McAuliffe and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in unexpected ways.

About three in 10 voters are less likely to vote for Cuccinelli because of his ties to the case, the Post-SRBI poll found. The attorney general accepted $18,000 in gifts from Williams and bought more than $10,000 in Star stock at a time when his office was defending the state in a tax case brought by the company and investigating the former executive mansion chef who first blew the whistle on Williams’s lavish gifts to the McDonnells.

Cuccinelli sold his stock, had his office recused from the tax and chef’s cases, and donated $18,000 to charity in an effort to distance himself from the scandal. He asked a Democratic prosecutor in Richmond to review his gift disclosures and was cleared. But the candidate’s association with Williams has complicated what was expected to be his chief line of attack against McAuliffe: questioning the Democrat’s ethics via his business and political fundraising history.

Growing numbers of Virginians say they are paying attention to the Star Scientific issue, with 53 percent saying they are following the news “very” or “somewhat” closely. That’s up from 36 percent in May.

The scandal has stoked interest in ethics reform in a state with some of the most permissive gift laws in the nation. Virginia’s elected officials may accept gifts of any size but must annually report any that are worth more than $50. Gifts to immediate relatives do not have to be disclosed.

The poll found big, bipartisan support for changes to Virginia’s disclosure laws. Nearly eight in 10 voters, 79 percent, support requiring officials to report gifts valued at more than $500 within 10 days. Seventy-six percent favor closing the loophole that exempts gifts to family members from disclosure, as Cuccinelli has proposed. Nearly six in 10 support a ban on personal gifts worth more than $100, as McAuliffe has suggested. All three proposals win majority support among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“The Congress or Virginia should do something, should pass legislation [that] you can’t receive any gifts from anyone except from your immediate family on Christmas and your birthday,” said Joseph Powers, 51, a long-haul trucker from Newport News.

“McDonnell has embarrassed himself with this stuff about gifts being given behind everybody’s back,” Powers said. “That’s like, ‘I’m in a good position. I’m the governor of the state. I’m special. I’m different from everybody else, so I can receive these expensive gifts, my wife can get them and everything.’ It’s just like bribery to me.”

Peyton M. Craighill and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Scott Clement is a survey research analyst for The Washington Post. Scott specializes in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

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