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And they’re off
SoVaNow.com / September 04, 2013Some days it’s best to just run up the white flag and concede that anonymous comments scribbled on the far reaches of the Internet can be pithier, by far, than most of the op-ed verbiage cranked out by paid scribes. To wit, this gem: “The fact that Terry McAuliffe represents everything that’s wrong with today’s Democratic Party would make me tempted not to vote for him … except for the fact that his opponent represents everything that’s wrong with today’s Republican Party.” (Booman Tribune, “Virginia is for Intrigue,” http://www.boomantribune.com)
The Charlottesville-based blogger Waldo Jaquith penned a fantastic variation on this theme in a December 2012 post entitled “Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe can win. And yet one of them must.” (You can find the whole thing at waldo.jaquith.org). With Labor Day behind us and the traditional start of the campaign season at hand, such commentaries surely capture the political zeitgeist of the Old Dominion, a sensibility that can fit neatly into a single word: sheesh.
Has there ever been a more dismal race for governor in Virginia history? The answer may well be yes, that the current disgruntled mood is more a product of unhappy times than anything the major party principals, Messrs. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, have done, and — oh, who are we kidding? Both candidates are either pretty much or thoroughly awful.
Let’s take McAuliffe first. It is difficult to talk about the Democratic nominee without the words “hack” and “bagman” seeping into the discussion, and there’s good reason for this: McAuliffe’s major claim to fame is being a prominent Friend of Bill, i.e., the top fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton. A braying and demonstrative sort, McAuliffe parlayed his Clinton connections into a stint as Democratic National Party chairman. He is a walking billboard for the importance of money in politics, which is one reason his candidacy hasn’t exactly inspired enthusiasm among progressive types who fret about the direction of the Democratic Party.
Being the “money guy” at campaign time strongly implies having buckets of money the rest of the time, too, which is another of McAuliffe’s defining characteristics. He seems to be a genuinely successful (and frenetic) businessman, with personal wealth that normally would be considered a political plus, but somehow McAuliffe doesn’t receive the sort of deference from the public that other well-heeled candidates have come to expect. Probably this is because McAuliffe hasn’t exactly been careful about masking the dirty little secret of a lot of wealthy folks: their riches flow out of spheres such Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the military-industrial complex, where actions of the government, direct and indirect, can mean all the difference between success and failure. It’s pretty tough to buy into the notion of rugged, virtuous “wealth creators” when they work so hard and spend so much money tilting the playing fields in Washington and in the nation’s other capitals.
In this vein, McAuliffe has the so-called Green Tech scandal on his hands: so-called because the whole thing is basically impossible to explain or understand, involving as it does a bunch of vague accusations that stem from McAuliffe’s involvement in a start-up car company, and his contacts with federal officials about a program to encourage foreign investment in the U.S. It’s a program that has inspired consistent bipartisan support, by the way. So, in other words: big whoop. Green Tech, the electric car maker, produces vehicles that more closely resemble golf carts — the venture hasn’t been what you’d call a resounding success — yet it was only a few short years ago McAuliffe was traveling around Virginia promising to build an electric car assembly plant, possibly in Southside, that would hire thousands. It all sounded peachy until Green Tech wound up in Mississippi instead, because the Magnolia State offered a better bouquet of incentives. Now there’s a scandal to decry: albeit one that is hardly exclusive to Terry McAuliffe.
The Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, talks about Green Tech all of the time. And why not? There’s not a lot our reigning Attorney General can say about his own record or positions that will appeal to voters beyond his hard-core base. At this point Cuccinelli’s shtick is well known. His public statements and policy actions belie an obsession with private consensual sex, he never misses an opportunity to jump headlong into the hot-button controversies of the day — whether it’s climate change, gay marriage, Obamacare, you name it — and you can rest assured that with Cuccinelli in the Governor’s Mansion, Virginia will get top billing on Fox News for the next four years. What’s not to love about that?
So yes, neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe can possibly win — yet one of them must, and the polls show McAuliffe up by about half a dozen points as we speak. Just to be clear, this is by far the preferable outcome: for all his flaws, McAuliffe is solid on issues of actual importance to ordinary Virginians, and it’s debatable even whether his fast-talking persona represents a bad fit for the office he seeks. Virginians tend to prefer pro-business governors, so much so that Bob McDonnell, in defending his execrable behavior in the Star Scientific scandal, keeps pointing out that he didn’t do any favors for Star that he wouldn’t do for any other Virginia company. (He has a point, overwhelmed as it is by the stench of the entire affair). One of the surprises of the campaign has been McAuliffe’s success at wooing big business types and moderate Republicans who shun Cuccinelli’s zealotry. Defections in the other direction are practically nil.
What has caused the race to turn south for Cuccinelli? One could argue, probably correctly, that voters are getting fed up with the in-your-face style of politics that the Attorney General embodies. The Republican Party is clearly divided between the Tea Party and an establishment wing that wanted Bill Bolling, the comparatively mild GOP lieutenant, as its nominee. Bolling is hardly any less conservative than Cuccinelli, but he doesn’t make the mistake of confusing principle with rigidity. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, wears his fondness for ideological combat like a badge of honor. Perhaps just as important, however, his reputation for high principle has taken a beating as the campaign wears on.
Star Scientific: now there’s a company to which we owe a debt of gratitude. Without Star, would Virginians understand as well that the state’s reputation for clean-gene governance is a bit of a crock? Chase City’s erstwhile economic engine has been the ruination of Bob McDonnell, but the company has been very, very bad for Ken Cuccinelli, too. It’s pretty tough for Cuccinelli to argue that Terry McAuliffe is a bought-and-paid-for hack when his own mouth is stuffed full of turkey purchased by Star CEO Jonnie Williams. (Cuccinelli and family enjoyed a $1,500 catered Thanksgiving dinner from Williams as part of an overall gift haul of more than $18,000). Cuccinelli also has a separate but related problem on his hands in Southwest Virginia, where his office has gotten involved in a landowner lawsuit against energy companies that have balked at paying royalty fees for methane gas rights. An assistant AG intervened on behalf of Consol Energy, one of the companies involved in the lawsuit, prompting a federal judge to say she was shocked by the state’s meddling. Whether the judge knew beforehand that Consol had donated more than $100,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign is unknown. Man of the People material, this is not.
So there you are. While the choices for Virginia’s next governor may be less than inspiring, the choice must be made, and there’s a big difference between moderately annoying and utterly odious. Will McAuliffe maintain his apparent advantage through Election Day, Nov. 5? Ominously for the Cuccinelli camp, polls indicate that most likely voters have already made up their minds. Of course, anything could happen between now and November — almost all of it bad. I don’t know about anyone else, but personally, the excitement seems almost too much to bear.