Stark contrast for voters in Virginia governor’s race

They’re both Catholic men with large families who live in Northern Virginia and want to be the commonwealth’s next governor. That’s essentially where the similarities end between Attorney General Ken T. Cuccinelli II and businessman Terry R. McAuliffe.

Elections are about choices, and Virginians will be presented with very stark contrasts on their ballots Nov. 5, as they decide whether to back Cuccinelli (R), McAuliffe (D) or Libertarian Robert C. Sarvis to hold the state’s top job for the next four years.

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Even in an era where Republicans and Democrats rarely agree on anything, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli stand out for their lack of common ground. From résumé to ideology to governing style, the two hopefuls present strikingly different visions of how they would lead the state if chosen to succeed term-limited Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

Cuccinelli is a seasoned elected official and a committed conservative. He wants lower taxes, slower growth in spending and a more efficient, less intrusive government.

“I’m the only candidate in this race who won’t need on-the-job training if you elect me your governor this year,” Cuccinelli said in a September debate in McLean. “You may not always agree with me in this race, but you’ll always know where I stand and why I hold the positions that I do.”

To critics, Cuccinelli is too far to the right to represent an increasingly moderate state, a crusader on social issues who disingenuously claims he’ll focus on economic policy.

McAuliffe is a former Democratic National Committee chairman and a businessman who has made millions in a variety of industries, often partnering with people he has met through politics. He has proposed boosting investment in several policy areas, particularly education, with the goal of creating a smarter workforce and a more diverse economy.

“The choice in this race is simple: Which candidate is going to govern from the mainstream, work with both parties and focus on those economic issues that Virginians are concerned about,” McAuliffe said at the same debate.

To his opponents, McAuliffe is a glorified salesman with few core values and little knowledge of how state government works.

Each man has issued detailed sets of policy proposals, with budget plans that make their priorities clear.

Cuccinelli has called for reducing personal income taxes and corporate taxes, at an annual cost of $1.4 billion, and offsetting the loss of revenue by eliminating some tax credits and loopholes. Cuccinelli would leave it to a commission to determine which loopholes to lose. Cuccinelli also says he would slow the growth of state spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth.

McAuliffe has argued for boosting funds for pre-K education, teacher pay and community colleges. He said he hopes to pay for those plans by using extra cash generated by an expansion of Medicaid, a top goal. Cuccinelli opposes Medicaid expansion, and says that it would end up costing the state money.

McAuliffe has portrayed himself as an heir to the consensus-based governing style touted by McDonnell, as well as former governors and current U.S. Sens. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Mark Warner (D). McAuliffe made a point of endorsing McDonnell’s sweeping plan to change the way Virginia pays for transportation programs, which passed with bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

Cuccinelli was against that measure — because it increased taxes and, he said, took away too much local control — and he also opposed extending Metro to Dulles Airport. McAuliffe has highlighted both issues in the hope of boosting support in Northern Virginia.

Cuccinelli has said that he would not seek to overturn either venture if elected governor and that he would be a far better steward of public money than McAuliffe. Cuccinelli portrays the Democrat as working in lockstep with organized labor.

The debate over energy has been especially heated. McAuliffe supports the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon-emission rules that would make it difficult to build coal-fired power plants in Virginia. Cuccinelli has accused McAuliffe of abetting a “war on coal” by the Obama administration that would hurt the state’s coal industry and drive up energy prices.

McAuliffe thinks man-made climate change is happening; Cuccinelli is a climate skeptic. McAuliffe and his allies have accused Cuccinelli of conducting a “witch hunt” against Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climate researcher, by suing the school to get access to Mann’s research.

McAuliffe’s team has also portrayed Cuccinelli as too conservative for the state on issues including abortion, divorce law and gay marriage. Democrats have advertised heavily on that subject as they seek to drive down Cuccinelli’s support among women.

Cuccinelli and McAuliffe do have one other thing in common — ethics problems.

Cuccinelli has been brushed by the scandal surrounding McDonnell, who is under federal investigation for taking gifts and loans from the dietary supplement firm Star Scientific and its chief executive. Cuccinelli took $18,000 in gifts from Star, some of which he initially failed to disclose, and eventually wrote a check for the amount to charity.

Separately, the attorney general’s office is being investigated by the state inspector general’s office, which is probing whether a lawyer in the office gave improper legal help to out-of-state energy companies being sued over gas royalties by Southwest Virginia landowners.

McAuliffe has had past ethics questions in his business career that Republicans have sought to highlight. His current problems center on GreenTech, the electric car company he co-founded, which is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for its use of a federal program that gives visas to foreign investors. McAuliffe resigned as GreenTech chairman in December.

McAuliffe’s and Cuccinelli’s flaws have created a potential opening for Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate. Sarvis — a lawyer who previously started a software company — lost a 2011 bid for state House of Delegates as a Republican. He left the GOP, he says, because the party went “off the rails on social issues.”

Sarvis has positioned himself as more fiscally conservative than McAuliffe, more socially liberal than Cuccinelli and more likable and scandal-free than both. He has raised only a fraction of the money they have, and third-party candidates rarely do well in Virginia races.

 
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