POLITICS
09/01/2013 07:19 am ET | Updated Nov 01, 2013

Virginia Governor's Race Shifts Into High Gear

AP

On Monday, both major party candidates for governor will descend on the rural Blue Ridge Mountain enclave of Buena Vista for the annual Labor Day parade.

It historically has been seen as a symbolic kickoff to the political campaign season, recognizing that families are shaking beach sand from their shoes and starting to pack school lunches.

"It's a really long race and for the first time you see the finish line," said Tucker Martin, who worked on the past two Republican gubernatorial campaigns in Virginia, in 2005 for Jerry W. Kilgore and in 2009 for Bob McDonnell.

"Every aspect of the campaign becomes more focused and more important after Labor Day."

That applies to voters too, said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"It's the fourth quarter, but for the most part, the crowd hasn't been paying close attention to the first three," he said.

"Now every move will be carefully scrutinized by the fans. Voters in the stands will focus and react much more quickly. That's why the endgame matters so much to the final score."

Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe have raised millions of dollars and spent time crisscrossing the state and constructing the scaffolding of their campaigns.

But this year's contest is unfolding amid unsavory subplots, including a possible federal indictment of McDonnell and investigations at least indirectly linked to both major party candidates.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a politics professor at Mary Washington University, said an indictment or resignation by the governor "can upset everything" in the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe race.

He referred to a dynamic in which people look at the transgressions or successes of an officeholder and punish or reward that candidate's party.

"If something happens to change the status quo with the governor it's going to be very, very painful for the Republican candidate," he said.

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll shows McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli by 6 percentage points, 48 percent to 42 percent.

McAuliffe was viewed favorably by 34 percent and unfavorably by 33 percent, but 31 percent of voters had not yet heard enough about him to give an opinion.

Cuccinelli was viewed favorably by 35 percent of voters and unfavorably by 41 percent while only 22 percent hadn't heard enough to form an opinion, according to the survey of 1,129 likely voters taken Aug. 14-19.

On Friday, Sabato's well-respected Crystal Ball analysis said the race is leaning Democratic: "McAuliffe has managed to make the prospect of a Governor Cuccinelli seem scary, while Cuccinelli has 'only' succeeded in making McAuliffe look like a run-of-the-mill, self-interested wealthy political hack.

"In this wholly negative race, that sad distinction matters."

Both candidates have brought in millions, including from outside groups, though McAuliffe has an edge there as well. McAuliffe had $6 million in cash on hand as of June 30, compared with Cuccinelli's nearly $2.7 million.

The poll results show the work they have to do, but it's work that has been in progress for months -- if not years.

McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, began laying the groundwork for a second run for office shortly after losing the Democratic primary in 2009, extensively traveling the commonwealth and launching businesses meant to boost his pitch as a job creator.

After his election in 2009 as attorney general, Cuccinelli barged into the race for governor in late 2011, riding a wave of tea party support buoyed by his litigation against the federal government on health care and environmental regulations.

Once the party slates were set, neither side waited to go after the man it will face in November.

Starting this spring, the campaign turned negative quickly with TV attack ads in regular rotation. Those ads -- and the sweat that the campaign staff members put in this summer building infrastructure -- will be put to the test now.

More than half of the ads run so far in the governor's race were attacking or defending attacks, according to an analysis released Friday that was conducted by Ace Metrix, a company that assesses television advertising. The group expects to see close to 100 ads in the contest by the end. The analysis was distributed by VennSquared Communications, a Washington-based communications and political consulting firm led by Democratic strategist Michael Meehan.

What's unique this year is that both sides "appear to have given up on any idea of selling their candidate positively," Sabato said.

"This is a 95 percent negative campaign, designed to frighten their own partisans into turning out to save the commonwealth from the other guy."

More TV and radio ads are to come, as will knocks at voters' doors as the push strengthens to Nov. 5.

Political celebrities will likely come for both sides. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., will attend a fundraiser for Cuccinelli on Sept. 16 in Richmond. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is holding a fundraiser for McAuliffe on Sept. 30 in Northern Virginia. McAuliffe helped elect Bill Clinton president.

A key to off-year elections in Virginia is the size of the electorate. Total voter turnout peaks in presidential election years, reaching 74.54 percent in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected president. It wanes in off years, sliding to 40.37 percent when McDonnell was elected governor in 2009.

Both campaigns tout strong ground games and are taking lessons from the last presidential election to fine-tune their efforts this year.

"It's a different election but I think it will be a continuation of applying what we learned in 2012 to 2013," said Mitch Stewart, a founding partner at 270 Strategies who worked as the Obama campaign's Virginia director during the 2008 general election. That year, Democrats won Virginia's electoral votes in a presidential contest for the first time since 1964.

He served as the campaign's battleground states director in 2012.

The 270 Strategies group is an informal adviser for the McAuliffe campaign, which knocked on more than 100,000 doors in August and gained more than 1,000 volunteers in the past three weeks.

The Republican National Committee says it has more resources devoted to the outcome of this year's governor's race than it deployed in the commonwealth during last year's campaign for president, including increased minority outreach, more campaign offices and more volunteers knocking on doors.

"That level of staff for this type of race is pretty unprecedented," said RNC spokesman Michael Short.

This year's effort also includes more data-driven targeting of voters at the precinct level. Already the campaign has doubled the number of "door knocks" that it did last year.

"We are not taking anything for granted," he said.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states with elections for governor this year. Incumbent Chris Christie is a strong favorite in New Jersey, so Virginia's competitive contest will be in the spotlight.

Despite the months invested in data-driven voter turnout plans and careful messaging, the 2013 race still has potential surprises in store for both sides.

Don't be surprised to see each side drop an "unexpected bomb or two" in their opponent's path, Sabato said.

Republicans have already attacked McAuliffe for his role in GreenTech Automotive, a struggling electric car company that has failed to meet his job creation claims. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the company that McAuliffe founded over its conduct in seeking foreign investors.

Democrats, meanwhile, have assailed Cuccinelli for remaining in office while running for governor, citing what they believe are conflicts in actions by the attorney general's office to assist an energy company that is one of his biggest donors.

"You shouldn't use all your best material too early. Both campaigns have saved things for the last eight weeks," Sabato said. "Then there are the debates -- the gaffe potential is always high, and the staffs hold their breath for the time McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are on stage. A gaffe can cost you days; the worst ones end your chances."

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have two scheduled debates remaining -- on Sept. 25 in Fairfax County and one in October at Virginia Tech.

Also looming are state and federal investigations over gifts McDonnell received from Jonnie Williams Sr., a wealthy donor and CEO of the nutritional supplement maker Star Scientific.

In November, Cuccinelli directed Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring to review McDonnell's statements of economic interest for possible violations of state disclosure laws.

In April, Cuccinelli also asked Herring to review Cuccinelli's own gift disclosures after he initially neglected to declare about $5,000 in gifts from Williams. Herring subsequently cleared Cuccinelli of violating the state's disclosure laws.

Then there's the wild card of Bill Bolling, the outgoing lieutenant governor, who was outflanked by Cuccinelli in his bid for the Republican nomination. Bolling has not hesitated to attack the attorney general.

Bolling, who initially flirted with an independent run, has been mentioned as a possible write-in candidate, though he said last week that he has no intention of pursuing that option.

But the write-in possibility, combined with the candidacy of Libertarian Robert Sarvis, means voter dissatisfaction could funnel critical support away from the two main party candidates.

The long-term consequences of this electoral sprint, Sabato said, will be little good will for the winner, at least initially.

omeola@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6812

Twitter: @omeola

jnolan@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @RTDNolan ___

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