Who’s running for governor?

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

As the dog days of August ap­­proached, I ran into several politicians at a variety of events around Virginia. Even sultry weather fails to slow things down in a state where lack of a second term for the sitting governor keeps the political landscape alive with speculation about his successor.  Although we won’t vote for governor again until 2013, several potential candidates already are working the crowds.

For example, the Virginia FREE Leadership Luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton Tyson’s Corner in early June drew a variety of politicians.  Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Virginia’s “Chief Jobs Officer,” had a chance to address the crowd, as did Gov. Bob McDonnell.  Off the podium, Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, drew a lot of attention.

About two weeks later, former Sen. George Allen, a Republican, was working the room at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond at a black-tie gala for Hugh Keogh, the retiring CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.  Early speculation on Allen was that he would attempt to regain his seat by challenging Democratic Sen. Jim Webb in 2012.  However, we’ve talked to many who think he may be more likely to take a run at the governor’s office, which he held from 1994 to 1998.  That move would throw a wrench in Bolling’s plans, but it also might be an election that Allen would more likely win.

A few days later, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was at the ribbon-cutting for Williams Mullen’s new offices in downtown Richmond.  For the first time, we noticed he’s wearing cowboy boots.  Maybe he’s worn them all along, but one can’t help wondering if Cuccinelli is trying on Allen’s shoes.

In any scenario, it looks like there is a lot of potential competition for the governor’s office coming from the Republicans.  The challenge will be to find a candidate with statewide appeal who can pass enough of the fractured party’s litmus tests and still win votes north of the Rappahannock.  Cuccinelli does well with the far right, but he failed to carry the vote in his home county, Fairfax, on his way to the attorney general’s office.

On the Democratic side, early picks are less obvious.  McAuliffe is positioning himself as a leading advocate of green energy and is working on personal investments in bio-mass that have the potential to bring jobs to downstate Virginians.  This follows the successful formula of Sen. Mark Warner, who was elected governor in 2001. Warner’s investments helped build his credibility on the economic issues and won over voters in parts of the state where Northern Virginia roots don’t play well.

Under the right set of conditions, McAuliffe can do a lot better than he did in the 2009 Democratic primary, where state Sen. Creigh Deeds pulled more conservative NOVA-Dems in one direction and former Del. Brian Moran pulled more liberal ones in the other.

The 10th District’s Del. Ward Armstrong, minority leader of the House of Delegates, is another name that comes up on the Democratic side.  Armstrong is well known and respected among his legislative colleagues.  Like McDonnell, he could put his political experience to work quickly in the governor’s office.  But while insider reputation and experience are helpful in governing, they aren’t necessarily assets in winning an election.  Creigh Deeds certainly had the inside game, but it wasn’t enough to win.  Armstrong’s district is located west of Martinsville along North Carolina.  Again, as Deeds found in his failed campaign, geography can become destiny when it comes to winning or losing in Northern Virginia.

When we asked people who they thought would run for governor, one surprising name to come up is former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.  That speculation raises the intriguing possibility of a match between former governors, Kaine and Allen. The winner would be the first governor since Mills Godwin to serve a second (but not consecutive) term. Godwin was elected governor as a Democrat in 1965 and as a Republican in 1973.

Kaine, currently chairman of the Democratic National Committee,  is more likely to remain focused on four more years for President Obama than on four more years for himself.  The smart money says that, if Kaine can succeed in helping Obama win a second term, the former governor will have a cabinet seat.

The vote for Virginia’s next governor in November 2013 may seem a long off, but we’ll be there before we know it.  If we had to pick candidates today, it would be Allen for the Republicans and McAuliffe for the Democrats.  Both are high-profile candidates who are sure to keep the nation’s political eyes on Virginia.

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