Cuccinelli Ken Cuccinelli (Steve Helber /Associated Press)

The Virginia gubernatorial race until recently has been a choice between the lesser of two evils for many voters. State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has the reputation of an ideologue at odds with the recent string of mainstream governors; he also had the looming Star Scientific flap hanging over his head. Terry McAuliffe had a history as a Democratic fundraiser and attack dog for the Clintons and some problematic business deals.

But in the last few weeks, the dam has broken on McAuliffe as questions about his electric car company, GreenTech, which he founded and in which he remains the largest shareholder, have intensified. Meanwhile, Cuccinelli seems to have sidestepped concerns about the gift scandal that enveloped Gov. Bob McDonnell. Moreover, he’s come up with some substantive agenda items to explain to voters what he actually wants to accomplish, something McAuliffe has largely failed to do.

Let’s start with McAuliffe’s bundle of problems. The Post reported earlier this month on a new SEC investigation of GreenTech into alleged promises of guaranteed returns to investors, noting “McAuliffe resigned as chairman of GreenTech in late 2012 as he began his run for governor, although he did not publicly reveal that he had done so for several months.

But that’s not all. The New York Times summarizes his other GreenTech problems:

Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Rodham sought dozens of green-card visas for foreign investors, primarily Chinese, under a program known as EB-5, which gives permanent resident visas in exchange for a $500,000 investment in an American company that creates jobs. GreenTech’ s financing depended on the EB-5 program, which was administered by a sister company that Mr. Rodham ran, Gulf Coast Funds Management. Both used the same office near Mr. McAuliffe’s Northern Virginia home.

Now questions abound as to whether this business venture actually was a scheme to get visas for wealthy Chinese investors, whether McAuliffe used political connections to strong arm Homeland Security officials who issue the visas and whether his company, which has yet to produce the promised fleet of electric cars, is a viable operation at all. Couple that with McAuliffe’s misrepresentation that he put the plant in Mississippi instead of Virginia because the latter didn’t process his application and you have the image, pun intended, of a used-car salesman.

The Post editorial board today ran a scathing piece, observing, “Equally disconcerting is GreenTech’s refusal to allow journalists to tour its factory in Mississippi. According to former GreenTech employees who spoke to The Post, the plant is a Potemkin manufacturing facility, where managers stage a semblance of production for the benefit of visitors. Company officials deny that. If it’s untrue, they should allow journalists to see for themselves.”

Having gone through one scandal at the end of this governor’s term, do Virginians really want to roll the dice on a governor who may face a myriad of legal problems from the get-go?

Terry McAuliffe (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post) Terry McAuliffe (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)

The Cuccinelli camp is betting the answer is no. Richard Cullen, a campaign spokesman, told me via e-mail this morning, “Aside from the fact that Terry McAuliffe’s GreenTech is the subject of not one but two federal investigations, what’s truly remarkable about these developments is his dogged refusal to come clean about them.” He jabbed, “Earlier this week, McAuliffe even pretended to be unaware of a front-page New York Times story in which his former business partner said politicians like him are ‘dangerous to business.’ If Terry McAuliffe can’t be trusted as a candidate, how can he be trusted as governor?”

People in Virginia are getting bombarded by ads attacking McAuliffe’s GreenTech connections. Moreover, the negative campaign may suppress turnout, usually a bonus for Republicans in an off-year election when younger voters and minorities turn out in smaller numbers.

In other words, the allegations are finally sticking to McAuliffe, who seems oddly (for a political operative) unable to answer questions or quash the burgeoning controversy.

Then there is Cuccinelli, who a few months ago had no discernible agenda, for which we’ve roundly criticized him. Once the Star Scientific scandal broke, Democrats were hopeful that Cuccinelli’s own receipt of gifts (some of which were reported, others were mistakenly left off the disclosure forms, he said) would ensnare the attorney general (who was forced to recuse himself from a tax suit against the company). According to polling, that hasn’t worked with voters.

As this has been going on, Cuccinelli has set out at least the bare bones of an agenda that eschews hot-button social issues. He’s rolled out an education plan stressing school choice, parents’ ability to take over failing schools and expanded charter schools. He’s come up with plans for energy (focusing in part on eliminating burdensome regulations), investment, worker training (including community college improvements), veterans and taxes. He has gotten some flak for failing to specify exactly how he’d pay for his proposed reductions in individual tax rates ( 5.7 percent to 5 percent) and business tax rates (6 percent to 4 percent), but he’s answered some of the concerns as to whether he’d follow his predecessor’s emphasis on bread-and-butter issues or seek to enhance his reputation as a hard-line conservative.

In short, McAuliffe seems exceptionally vulnerable, and Cuccinelli seems like a plausible alternative. Cuccinelli has been able to draw distinctions in ways that resonate with voters (e.g. he’s against Medicaid expansion while McAuliffe is for it) and come up with an agenda. The race is far from over. McAuliffe has yet to really unload against Cuccinelli on the social issues or make the case that the state needs someone to work with rather than go to war with the feds. But unless McAuliffe is able to change the dynamic in the race, it looks like he’s be the worst of two imperfect choices.