RICHMOND — High-powered Terry McAuliffe supporters made a furious attempt over the weekend to reverse a Washington area business group’s endorsement of Republican Ken Cuccinelli II for governor, with state legislators warning that “doors will be closed” to the group if it sticks by its choice.
The pressure exerted on the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s political arm, Tech PAC, by a U.S. senator, a Republican lieutenant governor at odds with Cuccinelli and several others suggests that McAuliffe’s campaign is worried that a Cuccinelli endorsement could undermine the central premise of the Democrat’s campaign — that he, an entrepreneur who started his first venture at 14, is the pro-business candidate and that Cuccinelli, a social conservative popular with the tea party, is too extreme for the state’s centrist business leaders.
Members of the council’s executive committee decided late Sunday to stick by the Cuccinelli endorsement but also to issue a statement saying that the PAC’s action might not reflect the views of its parent organization, the NVTC, according to news releases scheduled to be distributed Monday morning and obtained by The Washington Post.
The potential setback for McAuliffe comes at a time when the Democrat appeared to have an advantage in the race. Recent polls show Cuccinelli trailing. The Republican spent last week trying to distance himself from a scandal consuming Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, but wound up further entangled by disclosing that federal investigators had once questioned him about his own ties to a businessman who has showered the governor and his family with gifts.
The reasoning behind the NVTC TechPAC’s nod — Cuccinelli had detailed responses to questions in candidate interviews, three board members said, while McAuliffe was uninformed and superficial — bolsters the view that the Democrat’s breezy style doesn’t sit well with some Virginians. Two of the people said they were leaning toward Cuccinelli before the interviews; one disliked both candidates.
The episode also offers a rare glimpse behind the scenes of the high-stakes maneuvering for gubernatorial endorsements. Once the McAuliffe camp’s efforts to reverse the decision became known, Cuccinelli supporters tried to head it off, according to two people directly involved who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential matter.
“The pressure is hot and heavy,” Dendy Young, TechPAC chairman and chief executive of McLean Capital, wrote in an e-mail to TechPAC members Sunday morning. Young wrote that he received calls Saturday from Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Lt. Governor Bill Bolling (R) and Aneesh Chopra, the former U.S. chief technology officer and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Young also said that, on the other side of the issue, Cuccinelli called him, too.
The McAuliffe camp’s effort to reverse the endorsement was seen by some as an overreaction that will only draw attention to a development that is of limited interest to the average voter. Several people with knowledge of the proceedings said they were shocked at his mishandling of the endorsement process itself — and his misread of the serious and thoughtful approach to the issues that the council was expecting to hear from both candidates.
Also surprising was the first public indication that Bolling, the Republican lieutenant governor who said he would not endorse Cuccinelli after being outmaneuvered by him in the primary fight, is actively pulling for McAuliffe.
Bolling’s spokeswoman declined to comment. Warner’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The McAuliffe and Cuccinelli campaigns also declined to comment.
But e-mails obtained by The Post make clear that the lobbying effort on McAuliffe’s behalf was intense.
“I urge you to stop any endorsement of Cuccinelli,” state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), told PAC leaders Friday in an e-mail. “The ramifications of his being endorsed will be huge within the Senate Democratic caucus. . . . The response [from legislators] will be frigid and doors will be closed [when the council seeks help with its legislative agenda]. Achieving the goals of NVTC will be difficult to impossible.”
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) seconded those sentiments in their e-mails. In interviews, the senators said the messages should not be perceived as threats but as expressions of their frustration, given Cuccinelli’s opposition this year to the council’s top legislative priority: passage of a transportation funding overhaul. McAuliffe publicly supported the $1.4 billion-a-year plan; Cuccinelli opposed it as a “massive tax increase” but has said on the campaign trail that he would not seek its repeal as governor.
Howell, Saslaw and Favola also argued that Cuccinelli’s opposition to stem-cell research, his legal battle with a University of Virginia climate scientist and vocal opposition to gay rights make him an “incomprehensible” choice for the council, as Howell put it in her e-mail.
“For them to endorse a guy with his views, a supposedly enlightened group of people — science-oriented — would have been the same as in the 1960s, the NAACP supporting George Wallace,” Saslaw said.
Several members of the council said they did not ask questions about social issues but focused exclusively on business and technology matters.
TechPAC endorsed Republicans for governor in the past two campaigns, but some prominent members of the larger council have been so publicly discontented with Cuccinelli that many thought McAuliffe had a shot. Bobbie Kilberg, chief executive of the council, and Gary Shapiro, chief of the Consumer Electronics Association, blasted Cuccinelli in February when he spoke before a large business meeting in Washington.
TechPAC’s bipartisan board interviewed both candidates Thursday and voted immediately afterward by secret ballot to endorse Cuccinelli.
The endorsement was scheduled to be announced Friday afternoon but was delayed when the McAuliffe camp protested, leading to an intense weekend of lobbying by both sides.
Cuccinelli impressed the board’s majority as a serious, detail-oriented candidate while McAuliffe seemed to wing it, according to three board members present for the interviews who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.
“Terry was his normal, flamboyant self,” said a board member present for both interviews. “He didn’t want to get pinned down to any details. He didn’t give any details. He was all about jobs, jobs, jobs — ‘I’m just going to take care of the situation when the time comes. I’m just going to do it.’ It was all [expletive].”
Cuccinelli, by contrast, the person said, “was precise. He was thoughtful. He thought through all the issues. He had a clear position on all those issues, and he didn’t agree with the council on all the issues.”
Two people present said that in response to a question about how he’d accomplish his goals as governor, McAuliffe told the PAC board that as an Irish Catholic he’d be adept at taking people out for drinks and doing whatever it takes to get things done. McAuliffe is well known as a schmoozer, but he seemed to badly misread his methodical audience with that answer, several of those present said.
On a question about whether Virginia should stay in something called the “open-trade-secrets pact,” Cuccinelli gave a thoroughly researched response, the person said.
But McAuliffe answered, according to the source: “ ‘I don’t know what that is. I’ll have to look it up later.’ And then he turns back to the guy [who asked] and said ‘Well, what do you think we should do?’ And the guy says, ‘We want Virginia to stay in it.’ And then Terry says, ‘Okay, we will.’ ”
One member said that not everyone came away from the interviews thinking McAuliffe was blase and Cuccinelli better prepared. That member did not dispute McAuliffe’s drinks comment, but said, “You can take 30 seconds out of a four-hour interview and make anything out of it.”