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Virginia: Issues Fade in 2013’s Only Competitive Election

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, left, and former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe, right, are vying for Virginia governor, while Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, center, who declined to run, has defended McAuliffe against some of Cuccinelli’s attacks. Photos courtesy of Cuccinelli, Bolling and McAuliffe.

This year’s only competitive election is the Virginia gubernatorial race between former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Watching the mudslinging from both campaigns, however, the race so far looks more like a public relations duel over the candidates’ respective ties to two businesses than an issues-based campaign that will serve as a battleground bellwether for 2016 and beyond.

The press releases layer thicker by the day. In one of the latest from McAuliffe, his team announced that if elected he would create an independent ethics commission to monitor Virginia’s politicians and implement by executive order a ban on gifts to elected officials — an implicit dig at his Republican opponent and current Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell’s cozy relationship with Jonnie Williams, the chief executive of supplement manufacturing company Star Scientific, which is currently facing a federal securities investigation, could have been enough to pique the interest of McAuliffe’s press shop, and indeed, the governor is a crucial part of this story.

But Cuccinelli himself has received $18,000 in personal gifts from Williams or his company, several thousand of which he did not disclose until Friday, prompting state Democrats to call for his resignation.

As Cuccinelli’s stock holdings in Star Scientific grew, the attorney general’s office was defending the state Department of Taxation in a disputed tax suit against Star Scientific. Cuccinelli only appointed private lawyers to take over the case in April, saying he didn’t know about the Star Scientific suit for 19 months.

Cuccinelli said he hadn’t realized the totality of his holdings in Star Scientific exceeded the $10,000 disclosure requirement, which is why he didn’t disclose them for a year. The campaign maintains it was an oversight, certainly not as egregious as the poor judgement seen in McAuliffe’s lackluster business record, they argue.

And so in an attempt at transparency, Cuccinelli’s camp decided to make available to reporters eight years of the Cuccinellis’ tax returns.

His first campaign ad, featuring his wife talking about his commitment to “the vulnerable and those in need,” is an attempt to soften his campaign image thus far and connect with moderate voters that Republicans are hoping to capture in states like Virginia.

Cuccinelli has reprised two central Democratic lines of attack from the 2012 presidential election and turned them on his opponent: tax releases and a questionable business record.

A Cuccinelli web video features clips of prominent Democrats, including McAuliffe, demanding that Mitt Romney release his returns.

McAuliffe responded by releasing three years of tax summaries, showing he paid $3.6 million in taxes on $16.8 million in income over two years — a vast sum compared to the $200,000 Cuccinell reported earning in 2012.

And in another attack reminiscent of Democratic hits on Romney, Cuccinelli repeatedly targeted McAuliffe for a failed business record that did more for foreign and out-of-state interests than for the Virginian worker.

A year after the debut of the electric car company McAuliffe bought from a Hong-Kong carmaker, GreenTech Automotive employs far fewer people than promised, while its production plant has opened in Mississippi.

McAuliffe maintains that Virginia would not bid on the plant, while officials from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership maintain they were just skeptical of GreenTech’s usage of EB-5 visas, which are awarded to foreigners who invest in American start-ups.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who decided against challenging Cuccinelli, first as a Republican, then as an Independent, has taken McAuliffe’s side on the issue, somewhat undercutting Cuccinelli’s criticism that the plant is not in state.

While starting GreenTech was once seen as McAuliffe’s opening bid for his candidacy, McAuliffe prefers to talk about his business experience and “putting jobs first” in general terms, highlighting the driveway paving company he started at age 14 in his first TV ad, which will begin airing Thursday.

It’s no surprise he isn’t mentioning GreenTech, from which he quietly resigned as chair late last year. Cuccinelli wants voters to think McAuliffe is embarrassed by his business; McAuliffe points out that running for governor is a full-time job, which Cuccinelli should have considered before campaigning as an attorney general.

Staying on in McDonnell’s administration has thrown Cuccinelli in deeper water as attention on McDonnell’s ties to Williams has increased. The Washington Post reported Monday that the FBI is interviewing associates of McDonnell about the extent of his family’s relationship to Williams, who is a major campaign donor and has bestowed significant gifts on the family, including picking up the $15,000 catering tab for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding.

That caterer, also the former governor’s mansion chef, told state and federal authorities Williams paid for the catering. Now he’s pressing for embezzlement charges against him to be dismissed because he claims Cuccinelli stands to gain from convicting someone who could expose the political expediency of Cuccinelli’s and McDonnell’s ties to Williams.

Responding to calls for him to resign, Cuccinelli has since recused himself from the case.

Meanwhile, the McDonnells maintain that the 2011 launch party they hosted at the governor’s mansion for one of Star Scientific’s tobacco-derived supplements and a trip by the governor’s wife, Maureen, to Florida to promote the supplement were all typical state economic development initiatives, not efforts to boost Star Scientific in return for favors.

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