Virginia voters holding their noses in governor's race

Which will it be – the millionaire businessman with a history of cronyism or the anti-abortion culture warrior?

Former DNC chair and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, and Virginia attorney general and Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, right, at a debate on Sept. 25, 2013, in McLean, Va.
Linda Davidson-Pool/Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Va. — One is a wealthy businessman and former party official with a history of dubious business dealings and no record of public service. The other is a champion of the religious right who has turned off female voters in droves because of his controversial stances on social issues.

Say hello to Virginia's 2013 gubernatorial candidates.

Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has reportedly used his extensive political Rolodex to repeatedly land lucrative investments and cash out at the right moment. His last venture — an electric-car company called GreenTech that was supposed to pad his job-creating credentials after his failed 2009 bid for Virginia governor — is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Meanwhile, GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, has been one of the most strident anti-abortion voices in the state, supporting a controversial so-called personhood bill that would have given legal rights to human embryos. Cuccinelli is a favorite of the tea party.  

Three weeks before voters head to the polls, several who were interviewed in the suburbs in northern Virginia were dismayed that these two men were the unfortunate options.

"They're both idiots," said Rob Piester, 44, a resident of Arlington. "They both have this sleaze about them."  

Piester said he will be voting for McAuliffe. But he is not thrilled about it.

"Cuccinelli is more dangerous. He's nowhere near the center," he said. "I don't understand the tea party fascination in this state."  

Ed Booth, a retired foreign-service officer, was of a similar mind. He cannot possibly bring himself to vote for Cuccinelli.

"He is beyond the pale," Booth said. "His political agenda comes from the 19th century on women's issues and on abortion."

But, Booth, a Democrat, won't be bounding into the voting booth to vote for McAuliffe on Nov. 6 either.

"I wish there was a different candidate," Booth said. "Some of McAuliffe's business deals are probably illegal."

Catty campaign

In the midst of the government shutdown, which a majority of Americans are blaming on the GOP, McAuliffe has widened his lead over Cuccinelli to 8 points, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll. Nevertheless, voters' tepid feelings about both candidates are written into the poll numbers: Just 40 percent have a favorable view of McAuliffe, 39 percent of Cuccinelli.

Moreover, the race in Virginia has been marked by particularly catty sparring by the candidates and outside groups as well as a barrage of negative ads that have bombarded the airwaves. The campaigns have been less about what Cuccinelli or McAuliffe would bring to the office, said Frank Shafroth, director of the Center of State and Local Government Leadership at George Mason University, and more about how bad the opponent is.

"They're spending enormous amounts of money throwing sticks at each other," he said. "You're not inspired by either candidate in terms of what they're going to do. If you listen to radio, if you watch television, if you're looking at the print ads, you're thinking, 'How could I vote for either one of these guys?'"

Beverly Vogel, a 47-year-old government worker, said she is likely sitting this one out for exactly that reason.

"I'm leaning toward not voting at all because it's been so negative," she said. "For the last four to five years, there's been a serious decline in what politicians are putting forward. It seems like they are in it only for themselves. I'm completely apathetic at this point."

Janice, a 68-year-old resident of Arlington who declined to give her last name, said she was thoroughly confused about the race.

"One of them abandoned his wife and newborn to go to a fundraiser, right?" she asked. "And the other one has all those issues with women's rights? I forgot which one is which."

(For the record, on their way home from the hospital after his wife gave birth, McAuliffe briefly attended a fundraiser, leaving her in tears in the car with their newborn son and an aide — a story he tells in his autobiography.)

Shafroth predicted the election would have the lowest turnout in modern Virginia history for a gubernatorial election. Part of the reason for the poor crop of candidates is the manner in which the state GOP chose its standard bearer in 2013.

The Virginia Republican Party eschewed the traditional primary process and decided to hold a convention in which party activists chose the candidate, all but assuring that Cuccinelli, a grass-roots favorite, would emerge as the contender instead of the more moderate choice, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. McAuliffe won the Democratic primary in June unopposed.

The present conundrum is a departure for Virginia voters, who have usually had their pick of centrist, pragmatic candidates. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, has run into some ethics problems late in his term, but he supported unprecedented investment in infrastructure. Before him, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, now both senators representing the state, billed themselves as pro-business, fiscally responsible progressives.

Of course, some Virginians said they are not paying attention to the candidates themselves and will be going to the polls to express their disgust with the national parties. There is plenty of disdain to go around for both.

"I would vote for a bull hog before I would vote for a Democrat," said one Arlington resident who declined to give his name. "They have spent this country into oblivion."

Bettie Phillips, 60, a furloughed federal employee, has a different take.

"This year, I'm voting for a Democrat, no matter what," she said. "The majority of (Republicans) are being crazy. When am I going to get to go back to work?"

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