The race to the bottom

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

How quickly things change. Last summer, Mitt Romney was Bob McDonnell’s man-crush.  Our governor’s stint as a vice presidential hopeful turned out to be short-lived, undone by a social issues addiction in the General Assembly. Still, Virginia was front and center at both national political conventions.  Despite an occasional lampooning by late-night comedians, the Old Dominion seemed pretty grand indeed.

Then, the presidential race didn’t go exactly as planned.  While the election of Democrat Tim Kaine to the U.S. Senate alongside Mark Warner may have helped Virginia hold on to some of its status in the nation’s capital, the intransigence with regard to virtually all things Obama by our governor’s office, our attorney general and the General Assembly should leave us to expect little from Washington.

Concerns over government spending are well justified. Federal contracts, however,  are the wellspring from which Virginia’s above-average economic status is derived.  It’s a lot easier to tout “Bob’s for Jobs” when an entire nation is footing the bill.

Fast forward to this summer and the 2013 Virginia governor’s race.  Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has exposed a harsh new political reality.  Elections are more about money now than ever before.  According to the Wall Street Journal, super PAC spending in the 2012 elections exceeded $567 million.  High levels of national party and PAC funding dramatically alter the chances of less well-known, less well-connected candidates.

McAuliffe arguably has an uphill battle to become well known in Virginia, but there is no denying his national connections.  In 1996, he served as national finance chairman and then as co-chair of the Clinton-Gore re-election committee.  He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2001-05, during which time he raised $578 million and pulled the Democratic Party out of debt for the first time in its history.

Virginia’s Democrats are lacking in bench strength.  Tim Kaine’s election as governor in 2005 marks the last time that a Democrat held one of the commonwealth’s top three elected offices.  During the Kaine administration, Republicans Bill Bolling and Bob McDonnell held the offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general.  Since 2009, Republicans have held all three top spots, leaving little room for a Democratic governor-in-training.

With money being such a factor, it is no wonder that once McAuliffe decided on a second run for governor, the Democratic nomination was his for the taking.  Back in 2009, he came up short in a three-way Democratic primary with Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran, but that was before the Citizens United case opened up the contribution floodgates. Today, no one else can raise enough money to challenge his nomination.

On the Republican front, Ken Cuccinelli is the kind of guy who doesn’t take “No” for an answer. He has fought climate change, health-care reform, abortion, gay-rights — a classic conservative agenda.  At the same time, he’s taken a stand on some less familiar causes, such as human trafficking and restoration of rights to the wrongly convicted.

Cuccinelli announced his candidacy early in the process. Bolling’s subsequent exit, based on the party’s decision to nominate its candidate by convention rather than a primary, probably has done more to accentuate the rift between moderate and conservative Republicans than it has done to mend it.  (This piece goes to press just before the Virginia Republican Convention; at the moment the conservative-controlled leadership seems unlikely to see much change.)

Meanwhile, there’s a sideshow at the Executive Mansion.  Embezzlement charges brought against former chef Todd Schneider have yet to see their day in court, but the legal discovery process has brought forth embarrassing questions for Virginia’s first family, including a $15,000 gift from Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams to pay for Schneider’s catering services at the wedding reception for McDonnell’s daughter.

Questions regarding gifts from Williams to Cuccinelli as well as the attorney general’s ownership of Star Scientific stock also have surfaced, leading him to revise disclosure reports.  Turns out Star Scientific was suing the commonwealth over a tax assessment in 2011 when Cuccinelli owned more than $10,000 in Star Scientific stock. The attorney general said he had not been directly involved in handling the dispute but belatedly recused his office from defending the suit.

Not to be outdone by these Republican hijinks, McAuliffe quietly resigned from the chairmanship of his electric car company Greentech Automotive before a delinquent property tax bill (since paid) was revealed for a Greentech plant site in Tunica, Miss.

Both campaigns have used these events to tar and feather their opponents.  With the amount of money likely to be spent on this year’s governor’s race, one can only assume things will get worse.  At a time when the commonwealth should be looking for leadership that can rise above the partisan fray, we seem destined instead to witness a race to the bottom. 

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