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Eyes on the Old Dominion as McAuliffe, Cuccinelli Ready to Face Off in Debate

July 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Virginia has been a Republican stronghold for decades, but politics have begun to shift in the Old Dominion. The Washington Post's Ben Pershing and The Virginian-Pilot's Julian Walker join Ray Suarez to preview an upcoming debate between gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
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RAY SUAREZ: Another look at politics now, in Virginia, where the state’s race for governor is starting to heat up.

The governor’s race in Virginia this fall is being closely watched for what it says about the nation’s shifting political landscape. For decades, the Old Dominion was solidly Republican, but Barack Obama carried it in 2008 and again last year. One year later, the governor’s race is close.

On the Democratic side, Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. He helped run President Clinton’s reelection effort in 1996 and Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential run in 2008. McAuliffe first ran for governor in 2009, but lost the Democratic primary. Now he faces Republican State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. The conservative favorite has led the push for new regulations on abortion clinics and filed a federal lawsuit against President Obama’s health care law.

His campaign for governor has been dogged by the trouble swirling around the current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell. He’s under state and federal investigation for failing to disclose more than $145,000 in gifts from a campaign donor. Cuccinelli and McAuliffe face off tomorrow in their first debate in Hot Springs, Va.

For more on the state of play in the governor’s race, we’re joined by two reporters, Ben Pershing of The Washington Post and Julian Walker of The Virginian-Pilot.

Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.

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Julian, this is a much coveted seat by both Republicans and Democrats. What is the state of play in the race today?

JULIAN WALKER, The Virginian-Pilot: Right now , it is a pretty tight race.

There have been three polls out this week, two of which have the Democrat in the race, Terry McAuliffe, up by four points, one of which has the Republican in the race, Ken Cuccinelli, up by six points. I think both campaigns would concede privately that they see this as a pretty tight race. It is one that is going to be expensive.

It is one that has demonstrated that so far is pretty nasty, and I think we will see a lot more of that to come in the roughly four months before Election Day.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben, do you agree? Are the candidates spending a lot of their time and money running each other down, instead of making a positive sale of themselves?

BEN PERSHING, The Washington Post: I think certainly their campaigns are and also the state party apparatus on both sides.

They’re spending an awful lot of time trying to convince voters that the other candidates is unacceptable, not worthy of voting for. I think both candidates still have some work to do to convince voters that they should be governor, rather than just that the other guy shouldn’t be.

RAY SUAREZ: Julian, the party in power in the White House has often had some trouble winning the governor’s race in Virginia in an off-year election because of the way the cycles line up.

Did that give an advantage to Ken Cuccinelli, even though President Obama won last year in Virginia?

JULIAN WALKER: Well, that has been the longstanding trend in Virginia, that the year after presidential election, the party that won the White House is not the party that wins the governorship in Virginia. It’s the opposite party.

By that trend alone, you would think that Ken Cuccinelli has an advantage. The electorate tends to be in off-year elections in Virginia more of an older, more conservative, more Republican-leaning electorate. Democrats certainly found that out the hard way in 2009.

They insist that this time they have their troops, their ground forces motivated and they won’t have the kind of drop-off that you saw between 2008 and 2009, for example, when in 2008 Virginia voter participation was 75 percent, in 2009, the last time we had a governor’s election here, it was about 40 percent.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Ben, the incumbent Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, was one who had enjoyed both a national reputation and pretty high approval ratings in his home state. Are his recent troubles making things more difficult for his attorney general who is trying to succeed him?

BEN PERSHING: Well, there are two answers to that.

In terms of polls, so far we haven’t seen a big hit on Cuccinelli because of McDonnell’s troubles. But it certainly has affected the race simply in being a distraction. I think even Cuccinelli’s own advisers will admit it’s distracting when he gets asked almost every day about Bob McDonnell, about the scandal surrounding him, and about how the scandal itself also touches on Cuccinelli.

They would rather be talking about the economy, about jobs, about anything other this scandal right now.

RAY SUAREZ: There are recent developments, though, aren’t there, Julian, in the connection between a large campaign donor, contributor, Star Scientific, and its CEO and Ken Cuccinelli, himself, the Republican campaign — candidate for governor?

JULIAN WALKER: Well, there have been a number of developments that have been reported across Virginia detailing the numerous gifts that both the governor and his family as well as Ken Cuccinelli has received from Jonnie Williams.

The most recent developments came out on Thursday, when the Richard Commonwealth’s attorney, which is the equivalent of a district attorney in Virginia, completed and released his report indicating that he didn’t see any criminal wrongdoing or any violation of the law by the attorney general for his belated disclosures of some gifts from that donor Jonnie Williams.

Also, the governor’s office on Thursday released the results of an external audit done by a private attorney and former attorney general who has been hired to assist the governor’s office during this controversy.

And his audit reaffirmed what the governor had previously said in defense of himself and his administration, which is that Jonnie Williams nor any of his corporate interests had received any state benefits while Governor McDonnell’s term has been ongoing.

RAY SUAREZ: Isn’t this the kind of thing that a rival campaign would jump into with both feet?

Has Terry McAuliffe been restrained because of his own background as a big moneyman for Bill Clinton and some of the questions that have sometimes swirled around him?

BEN PERSHING: I think that is one possibility.

Republicans always respond to these criticisms by noting that McAuliffe had his own problems in the past, although many of them are older and less recent. And then the other issue that is complicated is that McAuliffe has actually embraced McDonnell in some ways, particularly on policy.

McAuliffe made a big show of saying that he supported Bob McDonnell’s major policy achievement, which was the big transportation bill in Virginia. And so in some ways, McAuliffe has embraced McDonnell and his legacy and his governing style.

So, that might give McAuliffe some pause in attacking McDonnell directly. He sort of prefers to hang back and maybe let other people do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Julian, the current United States senators from Virginia happen to be the last two Democratic governors of the state, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Are they of value to the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe?

JULIAN WALKER: Well, certainly, any time that you have a prominent member of your own party holding higher office, they’re going to be key surrogates for you. Tim Kaine, for example, has already appeared at a kind of policy rollout, kickoff really that Terry McAuliffe did earlier this spring.

Those folks are going to help. They also may help Terry McAuliffe in so much as they can present Terry McAuliffe as kind of heirs to their legacy.

Successful candidates for governor in Virginia have been able to court successfully the business community, the kind of Main Street Chamber of Commerce folks. And typically in recent Virginia gubernatorial elections, you have seen the candidate that has been able to get those kind of prominent and influential business leaders and thought-makers on their sides, those tend to be the successful candidates.

So if they can help McAuliffe make that case to that business community, that could be helpful.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Ben, quickly before we go, this election will occur later this year. Is it closely watched in national politics? Will it set the table for 2014?

BEN PERSHING: It certainly will in some ways because I think a lot of people see it as the only game in town.

The only other governor’s race this year is New Jersey, and I don’t think anyone thinks that is as close. So, both parties are using Virginia as sort of a proving ground for strategies, for messages.

Some of the staff in this race, you may see bounding up in the next presidential contest. So, if only because there’s a vacuum everywhere else, I think a lot of eyes are turned on Virginia this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Pershing, Julian Walker, gentlemen, thank you both.

BEN PERSHING: Thank you.