How McAuliffe became the front-runner: 8 turning points in the race for Virginia governor

November 5, 2013

The race for Virginia governor has burned through more than $50 million, well over 50,000 television ads and a seemingly infinite number of negative attacks lobbed between the campaigns of businessman Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R).

But there were a handful of key turning points that helped bring the race to where it stands on Election Day — with McAuliffe the acknowledged front-runner, ahead in every major poll for the past four months:

June 2012: Convention replaces GOP primary

Cuccinelli’s first significant win in the race for governor may also — depending on Tuesday’s outcome — have paved the way for him to lose.

Seventeen months before Election Day, Cuccinelli backers on the state Republican Party’s central committee overturned an earlier decision to hold a primary to pick the party nominee for governor. Instead, as many conservative activists in the state preferred, the GOP would hold a convention.

The move was a rebuke of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who stood little chance of prevailing at a convention and eventually dropped out of the contest. Bolling never got over the slight and told anyone who asked how extreme he thought the GOP ticket was. His top strategist, longtime Republican consultant Boyd Marcus, eventually endorsed McAuliffe.

And instead of being pushed to win over a broader Republican electorate in the primary, Cuccinelli never really had to work for the nomination or get out of his conservative comfort zone.

February 2013: Transportation bill passes

It wasn’t pretty or perfect, but the General Assembly passed and Gov. Robert McDonnell signed a sweeping package of reforms of how Virginia picks and pays for transportation projects.

There was much debate, after the fact, over whether McAuliffe — who met with and made calls to legislators during the debate — actually had anything to do with the bill’s passage, or was merely trying to take credit for the work of others. But on a practical level, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that McAuliffe was clearly for it, and Cuccinelli was clearly against it.

That divide was relevant to voters in the state’s two most traffic-clogged and voter-rich regions — Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — and was noticed especially in the business community. Many of the establishment donors to past GOP campaigns who backed McAuliffe in this race, or stayed out altogether, did so because of Cuccinelli’s opposition to the transportation bill and to the Silver Line Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport.

And when McAuliffe, who had spent much of his career as a partisan bomb-thrower and none of it in office, was asked later what record he had of working with Republicans to get things done, he inevitably pointed to the transportation bill as his prime example of bipartisanship.

March 2013: The Star Scientific story breaks

There have been many chapters written in the saga of the dietary supplement firm Star Scientific, with more still to come. But the political story began in March, when The Washington Post reported that company chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. had paid the catering bill at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter.

At the same time, the Post reported that Cuccinelli had failed to disclose for a year his stock holdings in Star. Later Cuccinelli would reveal he had also failed to disclose some gifts from Williams. In all, Cuccinelli took $18,000 worth of gifts from Williams and Star, an amount he eventually — after initially resisting — donated to a Richmond charity.

The Star story had two major impacts on the race: It effectively robbed McDonnell, then the most popular Republican in the state, of the ability to help Cuccinelli with voters and donors. (It turns out that the McDonnell family took more than $150,000 in gifts and loans from Williams, and a federal investigation is ongoing.)

And it raised enough questions about Cuccinelli’s own ethics and lack of disclosure that it muddied Republicans’ attacks on McAuliffe on the same fronts, even after it was later revealed that GreenTech, the electric car company co-founded by McAuliffe, was under federal investigation too.

May 2013: Cuccinelli stays neutral in the lieutenant governor race

At the state Republican convention in Richmond, Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson pulled out a surprising victory, beating out six better-funded and mostly better-known candidates for the lieutenant governor nomination.

The result: Cuccinelli ran on a ticket with a No. 2 who had a long history of making controversial statements about abortion, gay rights and other hot-button social issues that Cuccinelli said would not be the focus of his gubernatorial campaign.

Could Cuccinelli have stopped Jackson from winning?

The final ballot for lieutenant governor at the convention came down to Jackson and Pete Snyder, the technology entrepreneur whom Cuccinelli privately hoped would win, according to several Republican sources. Having Snyder on the ticket could have given Cuccinelli a fundraising boost as well as a link to the Northern Virginia business community that was hesitant to back the attorney general.

But even though Cuccinelli did endorse in the race for attorney general — backing state Sen. Mark Obenshain (Harrisonburg) over Del. Robert Bell (Albemarle) — he stayed neutral in the lieutenant governor race. Might Cuccinelli have been able to sway the final ballot in Snyder’s favor, or would he have just alienated the conservative activists who loved Jackson?

Cuccinelli decided not to find out.

June 2013: Judge criticizes attorney general’s office in gas royalties case

For years, landowners in southwest Virginia have been battling energy companies over the rights to, and royalties from, methane gas extracted from under their properties.

The issue is complex and messy, and it unexpectedly ensnared Cuccinelli in June when a federal judge criticized an assistant attorney general for being “actively involved” in helping two energy companies — one of which has given more than $100,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign — with their legal defense.

Before long, McAuliffe was airing ads featuring landowners who accused Cuccinelli of betraying them. And Tom Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund billionaire and environmental activist, poured money into ads of his own calling Cuccinelli unethical because of the royalties case — another blow to the GOP’s efforts to capitalize on McAuliffe’s ethical foibles.

An investigation by the state inspector general found no evidence that Cuccinelli approved of or knew about the assistant’s actions. But the bad publicity around the issue appears to have peeled away votes from Cuccinelli in the state’s southwest, a region where Republicans traditionally need to run up the score to offset losses elsewhere in the state.

July 2013: The first debate

After months of trading barbs from afar, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli finally clashed face-to-face in their first debate at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs.

And nothing happened.

Well, not nothing. McAuliffe accused Cuccinelli of being an extremist on social issues and Cuccinelli called McAuliffe a selfish Washington insider — the same charges they had made before and would continue to make through Election Day.

But there were no dramatic moments or memorable gaffes, nothing that would burn up YouTube the morning after. More importantly, McAuliffe — whose 2009 debate performances were thought to be lackluster — was relatively disciplined and calm, as he would be in the next two debates.

Cuccinelli, acknowledged by both sides to be the more experienced and skilled debater, was unable to use any of the three debates to turn momentum in his favor. What had been seen as a key GOP advantage was effectively neutralized.

September 2013: The TechPAC endorsement

A central plank of McAuliffe’s campaign has been that he is the better candidate for business, especially in diverse, socially moderate Northern Virginia.

So McAuliffe and his allies were not happy, to say the least, when the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s TechPAC endorsed Cuccinelli. The Post reported that some PAC board members were unimpressed by McAuliffe’s pitch, finding him shallow and uninformed about policy issues.

For once, the Cuccinelli team felt it had the wind at its back. Here was an endorsement that could reverberate with swing voters and, more importantly, the donor community. The Cuccinelli campaign quickly made the endorsement and the charge that McAuliffe was “deeply unserious” a centerpiece of its advertising.

The endorsement and the subsequent ads never seemed to move the polls much. But they did raise a question: What if Cuccinelli had focused his message from the start on the idea that McAuliffe was an unprepared lightweight, rather than focusing on GreenTech and ethics? Would that have been more effective?

October 2013: The shutdown

There was always an inherent tension in Cuccinelli’s campaign message — he was a resolute advocate for a smaller, more frugal government running in a state that is hugely dependent on government spending.

The 16-day shutdown of the federal government threw the spotlight on that tension. And it put Cuccinelli, who has long bragged that he was the first state attorney general to sue over the Affordable Care Act, in a tough spot. Would he endorse the strategy of refusing to fund the government unless the health law was defunded? Or would he criticize that strategy, potentially angering some of his base voters?

Cuccinelli never quite picked a side, criticizing the shutdown in general terms without explicitly saying whether Capitol Hill Republicans had chosen the wrong path. He spoke at the same Richmond fundraising dinner as a key architect of the shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), but took pains to not appear too close to Cruz.

In the end, Cuccinelli faced the same problem that national Republicans did: The shutdown helped divert the attention of the public and the media from the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov.

Cuccinelli spent the final days of the campaign trying to put the shutdown behind him and keep the focus on the health law. But it may have been too late.

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