While surveys suggest many voters have yet to pay a great deal of attention to the governor’s race, those who have tuned in appear less than enthusiastic about their options.
A recent poll showed only 45 percent of Virginia voters were satisfied with the choice between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, with 40 percent saying they wish someone else were running.
“Both campaigns are in weak positions relative to voters right now,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
Less than five months until Election Day, each candidate is feverishly trying to define himself while reducing his rival to a caricature. In the process, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have stumbled, opening themselves to attack on aspects of their candidacies once thought to be among their strengths.
McAuliffe, a multimillionaire businessman from McLean, had touted his ability to spur economic development by citing two companies he’s created — GreenTech Automotive and Franklin Pellets. But the struggles of those companies to live up to his earlier claims have made him vulnerable to attacks from Republicans seeking to debunk McAuliffe’s credentials as a job creator.
Cuccinelli, the attorney general and former state senator, had an obvious experience advantage over the never-elected McAuliffe. But his decision to remain on the job while running for governor has opened the door for Democrats to question his ethics amid conflicts brought on by the involvement of his office in high-profile cases involving political donors such as Star Scientific and Consol Energy.
Since his 2009 campaign McAuliffe has changed positions on offshore drilling — he now favors exploration for oil, not just natural gas — and on coal — he now wants to boost the industry, four years after he said he never wanted another coal plant built.
Cuccinelli has reversed himself on restoring civil rights to nonviolent felons — he now wants to make it easier — in line with efforts this year by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell to speed automatic restoration to nonviolent felons.
McAuliffe’s former role as Democratic National Committee chairman has opened access to substantial campaign funding sources outside Virginia, but it has also led to partisan criticism that he is a Washington insider without substantial Virginia political roots.
Meanwhile, Cuccinelli’s strong ties to the tea party and record of conservative stands on social issues such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage have provided a line of attack that he is extreme and out of touch with a changing commonwealth, and women in particular.
“Clearly, this is a race between candidates who are not what you’d call perfect candidates,” said longtime Republican strategist Boyd Marcus, most recently an adviser to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
“Each of them has their own burdens they have to bear in trying to persuade people they are the best candidate to be governor.”
Here’s a brief look at some of the speed bumps both face on the road to the Executive Mansion:
After purchasing a Chinese electric car company, McAuliffe chose to locate its U.S. operations in Mississippi instead of Virginia after state economic development officials in Virginia expressed skepticism about financing for the deal, which would have relied on a federal visa program — untested in Virginia — to attract foreign investment.
McAuliffe promised GreenTech Automotive would create 2,000 American jobs and produce cars, promises that have fallen well short of expectations, with fewer than 100 jobs combined currently in Mississippi and in Virginia, where related GreenTech offices are located.
Mississippi provided $5 million in loans and grants to buy property in Tunica and prepare the site for a permanent plant for GreenTech, on the condition the company creates 350 jobs and builds a 300,000-square-foot facility by the end of 2014.
As of this spring, the Tunica site was an empty lot with minor improvements. And just five months after a much-ballyhooed July 2012 company launch with former President Bill Clinton at its temporary facility in Lake Horn, Miss., McAuliffe left GreenTech quietly last December without any public notice.
A campaign spokesman later said McAuliffe left the chairmanship of the company so he could focus on the governor’s race, but he remains an investor with a $250,000 stake.
“GreenTech was started because Terry and those involved took a risk on high-tech manufacturing,” said campaign spokesman Josh Schwerin. “Like every startup during the recession, the company faced headwinds: Manufacturing isn’t easy, and manufacturing a new kind of car is even harder.”
In early 2010, McAuliffe talked about converting the former International Paper plant in Franklin into a renewable energy facility, which in 2011 led to the formation of Franklin Pellets — a venture McAuliffe predicted would create 200 to 300 jobs.
Last fall, McAuliffe and his partners signed a 20-year lease with the Virginia Port Authority, approved by Cuccinelli’s office, for a 13-acre parcel in Portsmouth to house the wood pellets he planned to produce at the Franklin site and later ship for use in power plants in Europe.
Currently, however, there is no sign of construction at the port site or signs of converting the International Paper plant for the pellet operation.
State economic development and local officials in Isle of Wight County have said that negotiations are ongoing with McAuliffe’s companies — ecoFUELS and Capital Management International, which signed the port lease with a Houston-based company, multiFUELS LP.
“In an innovative company like this, there are a lot of moving parts on both the shipping component and manufacturing component,” Schwerin said. He called the lease signing “a great step forward for the company.”
Meanwhile, McAuliffe has distanced himself from Franklin Pellets. As with GreenTech, Schwerin said the separation was due to the time devoted to running for governor.
“Terry was an investor and partner in CMI and ecoFUELS (the joint venture with multiFUELS), providing vision and guidance. When Terry started running for governor full time, he scaled back his involvement and is now an investor.”
If McAuliffe departed from the day-to-day management of his companies because he needed to focus on his gubernatorial run, Cuccinelli has courted trouble for staying on as attorney general while pursuing the governor’s office.
Cuccinelli and his family received more than $18,000 in gifts from Jonnie Williams Sr., the CEO of financially troubled Henrico County-based dietary supplement maker Star Scientific Inc.
Cuccinelli initially neglected to declare some of the gifts — and his holding of more than $10,000 in Star Scientific stock — on his economic interest statements. The omissions further complicated the role of his office as the prosecutor of felony embezzlement charges against former Executive Mansion chef Todd Schneider.
Williams provided $15,000 to cover the cost of catering that Schneider provided at the June 2011 wedding of McDonnell’s daughter, Cailin. Under pressure and allegations of conflict, Cuccinelli requested and was allowed by a judge to withdraw from prosecuting Schneider.
The Cuccinelli-Williams relationship also prompted the attorney general to hand off defending the state in a lingering lawsuit, filed by Williams’ company, challenging a $700,000 tax assessment in Mecklenburg County that has grown to more than $1.4 million with penalties.
On March 8, 2012, Schneider and his lawyer met with a senior assistant attorney general and agents from the FBI and Virginia State Police at the attorney general’s office. Schneider provided information about Williams’ relationship with the governor and alleged improprieties concerning mansion resources.
In November, Cuccinelli referred an investigation into McDonnell’s economic disclosure forms to Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring.
Cuccinelli revised his economic disclosures regarding Star and Williams and acknowledged responsibility for the omissions, saying they were not intentional.
He dismisses criticisms that he has a conflict in working as attorney general while running for governor.
In early June, a federal judge said she was shocked that one of Cuccinelli’s assistant attorneys general, Sharon Pigeon, had assisted two natural gas companies that are being sued by Southwest Virginia property owners who say they are owed millions in royalties for their natural gas deposits.
The attorney general’s office advises the Virginia Gas and Oil Board. The board, part of the state Department of Mining and Mineral Resources, is not a defendant in the potential class-action lawsuit. But it intervened in the dispute with Pittsburgh-area energy companies EQT Production and CNX Gas, a division of Consol Energy.
In reviewing the case and email correspondence, U.S. Magistrate Pamela Meade said: “Shockingly, these emails show that the board, or at least Pigeon, has been actively involved in assisting EQT and CNX with the defense of these cases, including offering advice on and providing information for use on the motions before the court.”
Democrats and other critics have cried foul, arguing that Cuccinelli is leveraging the power of his office to assist private entities who support him politically.
Cuccinelli has received more than $400,000 in contributions from energy companies, according to the Virginia Public Access Project — including more than $100,000 from Consol. The company recently hosted a fundraiser for the attorney general in Pittsburgh at a Penguins hockey playoff game.
“My office intervened for the limited purpose of defending the constitutionality of the law,” Cuccinelli said in a statement Monday. “As is typical practice, the senior assistant attorney general working on the case cooperated with and shared information with both sides in the case.”
In addition to work-related entanglements, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have image issues to overcome.
Political analysts say Cuccinelli needs to avoid being defined as a one-dimensional, ideological warrior on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
The involvement of the attorney general’s office in redirecting Board of Health regulations to impose greater restrictions on abortion clinics, along with the inflammatory anti-abortion and anti-gay rhetoric of E.W. Jackson, Cuccinelli’s running mate for lieutenant governor, complicate the task.
“Cuccinelli has to convince voters — and potential campaign contributors — that he is not going to launch a social crusade if he is elected governor,” Kidd said. “That is a tough thing for him to do, because he has spent so much time as AG focused on high-profile social and partisan causes.”
“If he is perceived as being one-dimensional in the fall as he is now, he’ll lose,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The analysts say McAuliffe, who is less well-known than Cuccinelli despite an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2009, needs to raise his profile — especially among voters who again delivered the state for President Barack Obama in 2012.
They say part of that task involves distancing himself from being defined as a back-slapping Democratic money man who cut a colorful image as President Bill Clinton’s sidekick.
A New York Times story about the July 2012 opening of the GreenTech plant in Mississippi quoted Clinton as saying that he “absolutely” would buy a new car from McAuliffe, the former DNC chairman.
“But a used car? I’m not so sure about a used car.”
Sabato said McAuliffe “has to show that he has acquired the knowledge to govern Virginia well, and he has to temper his sometimes outlandish personal behavior to better reflect what Virginians expect to see in their governor.”
Kidd said, “McAuliffe’s campaign also has to expand the electorate so that it looks more like 2012 and less like 2009.”
Defining the other guy will be key to who wins in November.
“If this turns into a lesser-of-two-evils race and the messaging is negative about the opponent, it is likely that will suppress turnout,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic strategist who has worked for Kaine and Warner, and advised McAuliffe’s 2009 bid.
“The lower the turnout, the better it is for Cuccinelli, because the people we know are going to turn out are his people.”
Sabato said all year long he’s been hearing complaints from voters about their choices this year.
“I understand that, but to be fair, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are the only two who ran for governor,” he said. “Shouldn’t some of the blame be apportioned to those who took a pass?”