As if the government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis weren’t harrowing enough, Virginia voters face another source of political misery: the worst candidates for governor in years.
Yes, the distinguished state that produced George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe features a matchup between a scary-extremist Republican, Ken Cuccinelli II, and a way-too-slick Democrat, Terry McAuliffe. There’s a third guy in the mix, Libertarian Rob Sarvis, a political novice who most folks have never heard of but some are embracing out of sheer desperation.
Voters aren’t happy with their gubernatorial — should be goobernatorial — options, as I discovered at the Fredericksburg Fall Home and Craft Festival, amid the hot-tub displays and handcrafted reindeer lawn ornaments. The folks I talked to were engaged. And enraged.
“When I get in that voting booth, I’m just gonna do this,” said Jeff Burke, miming a coin flip.
Burke, 58, is a born-and-raised Virginian from east Richmond. At his Rainbow air cleaner booth, he poured forth his traditional, Republican values from beneath a walrus mustache. But this year, he is so turned off by Cuccinelli that he can’t completely commit to his party.
Tom Warrick, 68, who, with his wife, makes lovely, delicate sculptures called LaLa’s Leaves, is in a similar position.
“I’m a Democrat. Just about always vote Democrat,” the Lake Anna resident told me from behind a stand of concrete elephant-ear leaves painted in autumn colors. “But I don’t want to vote for the Democrat this year. Don’t want to vote for the other guy either. They’re all bad.”
And so it went throughout the day — air conditioner salespeople, burly chain-saw crafters, quilters. I couldn’t find anyone wholeheartedly supporting one of the candidates.
A Catholic schoolteacher selling Christmas decorations opposes abortion, like Cuccinelli, but said she won’t vote for him solely on that issue. She, her husband and her 23-year-old daughter can’t find a candidate to back.
“We would’ve voted for Cuccinelli, but we don’t like his ties to the tea party,” she said. “And McAuliffe? He’s just not trustworthy.”
A Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll conducted last month reflected some of her disgust. Cuccinelli was viewed unfavorably by 47 percent of voters, while McAuliffe was seen that way by 36 percent.
Those unfavorable feelings seem to be growing. I interviewed Virginians for a week at fancy shopping malls, in rainy parking lots, in the grocery checkout line.
The overwhelming sentiment? Yuck.
The overriding answer?
“I think I’m just not going to vote this year,” said Marie Garcia, 34, a stalwart Democrat from Woodbridge in the bellwether county of Prince William.
“My 8-year-old daughter was watching TV the other night when another one of those political ads came on. She said, ‘Mom, why aren’t there any good politicians?’ ” said Garcia, who works at a shop in the Potomac Mills outlet mall.
The attack ads are everywhere, and more shrill and aggressive than the cosmetics salespeople at the mall.
Cuccinelli’s camp is banging away at McAuliffe for being an oil slick — a wheeler and a dealer, a man of shell corporations and shady business deals with no real governing experience.
Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s folks are highlighting Cuccinelli's hard-line conservative stands on social issues, his ties to the tea party and therefore the federal government shutdown, and his links to the Star Scientific gifts scandal soiling Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his family.
Increasingly, there is a third way in this election. Like mushrooms that grow when the conditions are just right — equal parts shady and mucky — a third-party candidate has emerged.
But Sarvis has yet to reach the 10 percent mark in polls. Eight or 9 percent is not enough to get him in on the final debate before the Nov. 5 election. Will his numbers rise as fast as the bile in voters’ throats?
“This is the first time I’m thinking of voting for a third-party candidate,” said Margo Callaghan, 58, who recently moved from Vermont to Locust Grove, about 20 miles outside Fredericksburg.
She said she dived into the election when she moved here to find her candidate and was stunned to find that neither was palatable.
Her partner at their home-improvement expo table, a 37-year-old native Virginian who lives in Ruckersville, said she isn’t sure she can go for the Libertarian. “They’re just all so awful,” she said. “But I can’t imagine not voting.”
Garcia can. “At this point,” the shop clerk from Woodbridge said, “I don’t think a lot people want to even vote.”
That’s the problem. And it’s a dangerous one.
The state’s smart, reasonable, thinking voters — who aren’t single-issue kooks, who don’t vote strictly along party lines, who weigh each candidate based on his or her merits, policies and plans — are running away. And that’s how you get leaders voted into office by zealots.
Virginians deserve better. Unfortunately, in this election, they aren’t going to get it.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.