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Degree of Dislike May Decide Va. Governor Race

Degree of Dislike May Decide Va. Governor Race

By Scott Conroy - May 30, 2013

Typically, when a prospective candidate for political office writes a book, his or her supporters are the people most eager to hawk the personal anecdotes and policy prescriptions contained within it.

In the 2013 Virginia governor's race, however, some of the biggest promoters of the tomes written by Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe are the two candidates' harshest critics. The reason: They believe that impartial observers will view the other man’s words as off-putting enough to disqualify him from high office.

This reverse-promotion is emblematic of how the race’s dynamic has solidified more than five months from Election Day: It’s the survival of the least objectionable candidate.

When Cuccinelli’s book, “The Last Line Of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty,” was published in February, Virginia Democratic legislators staged a public reading to highlight passages that would reinforce the Tea Party-backed candidate’s image as a rigidly ideological demagogue who, by turns, accuses the Obama administration of hatching an unconstitutional power-seizing scheme and laments “the scourge of recreation centers.”

Shortly thereafter, GOP opposition researchers took glee in helping to resurrect McAuliffe’s 2007 book, “What a Party!,” in which the Democrat appeared to reinforce proudly his image as a Machiavellian creature of the nation’s capital. Among the work’s highlighted passages: McAuliffe parting from his wife -- while she was in labor -- to attend a party for a Washington Post reporter, and an incident in which he left his spouse and newborn son sitting in a car while he spoke at a fundraiser.

With the outcome of the race very much in doubt, strategists on both sides privately agree that the contest will come down to which candidate comes across as the least unappealing to voters: the “extremist” Cuccinelli or the “slippery” McAuliffe.

In a survey released Wednesday, Democratically affiliated Public Policy Polling described the campaign as the “lesser of 2 evils race.” The poll showed that both men’s approval ratings were underwater, as 29 percent of voters viewed McAuliffe favorably and 33 percent had an unfavorable opinion of him, while Cuccinelli’s favorable/unfavorable rating was 32 percent/44 percent.

More remarkably, PPP found that 21 percent of Virginians were undecided -- up from 13 percent in January, when the firm conducted its last survey of the race.

Political campaigns may be zero-sum games, but in the Old Dominion, “none of the above” appears to be an increasingly appealing choice.

It’s not that the candidates aren’t trying to come across as likable. Both campaigns have largely aired positive ads thus far, as the contest is in its early stages (McAuliffe is not slated to be nominated until the June 10 Democratic Primary, in which he is running unopposed).

In his first TV ad, McAuliffe touted his entrepreneurial past, his two decades living in Virginia, and large family.

And Cuccinelli has been running an emotionally charged spot featuring family members of a slain Virginia police officer, who recount the attorney general’s frequent hospital visits after the shooting.

Still, the ads have not changed the race’s negative overtones.

“At the moment, it certainly looks like this could turn into a quick race to the bottom in terms of the political tone,” said Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth. “I think there is some frustration with that, and I think there are ordinary citizens who really want to see a little more discussion of the issue differences of the candidates. On the other hand, whether that’s going to overcome the basic thrust of each campaign -- which is to define the other as not meeting the minimal bar for being governor -- is really an open question right now.”

As one of just two off-year gubernatorial elections -- and the only one expected to be close -- the toxic atmosphere surrounding the race has been exacerbated by its heavy nationalization. Both political parties and a growing number of outside groups are poised to pour in more resources in the coming months, even as the local news coverage has hewed more closely to the key issues confronting Virginians.

Among the national Republican entities that have been leading the charge to discredit McAuliffe has been the America Rising PAC, an opposition research firm led by former top Mitt Romney aides and RNC officials.

America Rising has tipped off reporters to embarrassing information about McAuliffe and has acted as a particularly sharp thorn in his side online. For example, the group recently drew attention to the comments of some state Democrats who questioned the extent of McAuliffe’s role in forging a transportation bill compromise in the Virginia legislature, which he trumpeted in a TV ad.

“Terry McAuliffe is finding out that when the premise of your campaign is completely phony, you aren't left with much to say except increasingly desperate slams on your opponent,” said America Rising spokesperson Tim Miller. “He doesn't want to talk about his experience as a professional Democratic hack, or his time giving special government deals to big donors, or his time as a ‘businessman,’ which was really him accepting those same special government deals and failing to create any jobs, so he's got nothing positive to campaign on at all.”

On the Democratic side, a super PAC called The American Bridge to the 21st Century has been at the forefront in portraying Cuccinelli and his controversial new running mate, E.W. Jackson, as right-wing activists out of touch with a moderate state electorate that awarded Barack Obama victories in 2008 and 2012.

Democrats believe they were handed a gift when Jackson -- an African-American minister who won less than 5 percent of the vote in last year’s GOP Senate primary -- emerged from the recent Republican nominating convention as the nominee for lieutenant governor. Jackson has a long history of making incendiary comments and once accused Planned Parenthood of being “far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was.”

In one of American Bridge’s Web ads, the group juxtaposes footage of Cuccinelli questioning Obama’s place of birth and comparing him to King George III with Jackson making discredited accusations about the president.

“Barack Obama is at best a confused man . . . at worst has the sensibilities -- and I don’t know how this combination works -- of an atheist and a Muslim,” Jackson is shown telling an interviewer in the video. “The idea that Barack Obama is a Christian is laughable.”

Virginia Republicans readily admit in private that having Jackson as their party’s lieutenant governor nominee is a significant concern for Cuccinelli’s prospects, but they point to state voters’ history of splitting the ticket to elect a governor from one party and an LG from another as reason not to panic.

Cuccinelli and Jackson recently completed a three-day fly-around tour of the state, but the man at the top of the ticket has made pains to emphasize that he is running his own race.

And Cuccinelli aides are quick to note that their campaign is headquartered in Northern Virginia, while Jackson’s is based in Hampton Roads.

“Are we going to cross paths with E.W.? Yeah, but we’re campaigning on our own,” one Cuccinelli ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told RCP. “We have a base that McAuliffe doesn’t have. I think he’s doing everything he can to energize the people that went out to vote for Obama, but he’s not giving them a reason to vote for him. He’s only giving them a reason to vote against Ken.”

But Democrats are confident that they can continue to use Jackson to bolster the image of Cuccinelli as a radical candidate, someone already known for having launched a crusade to discredit the findings of climate-change scientists and going to court to try to uphold Virginia’s anti-sodomy law.

In light of that, this line of thinking goes, McAuliffe need only be seen as a tolerable alternative.

“McAuliffe is trying to reach a threshold of acceptability and make the rest of it about Cuccinelli,” said one national Democrat involved in the race. “I do think it’s going to be nasty. I expect there to be a lot of negative ads in this race, and they will try to impugn Terry’s character as someone who’s out of touch with the state, who doesn’t understand the needs of the state. But I think the more powerful message is that Ken Cuccinelli, for his entire time in public service, no matter that he says he cares about jobs and the economy, is restricted by his obsessions.”

As Election Day draws nearer, the national onslaught against both candidates is likely to become only more pronounced on the ground, over the airwaves, and online. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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