McAuliffe vs. Cuccinelli: Virginia's Gubernatorial Sophie's Choice

How do voters feel about the two scandal-plagued candidates vying to rule in Richmond? It's not pretty.

Steve Helber/Associated Press

Pity the Virginia voter.

That this year's governor's race would be a spectacularly nasty affair comes as no surprise, considering it pits a former Democratic National Committee chairman (Terry McAuliffe) against a hero of the religious right (Ken Cuccinelli).

What's unexpected are the rapidly churning scandals that have not only escalated the mudslinging between the two nominees, they've given it an underpinning of actual substance. The Washington Post has documented how Cuccinelli accepted money and gifts from a businessman whose close ties to Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family are under federal investigation. Published reports also revealed that McAuliffe's former electric-car company, GreenTech, is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission in connection with its foreign investors.

With new revelations about these beleaguered candidates coming out regularly, voters in the commonwealth are facing a historically unpleasant dilemma.

"Honestly, I don't really care for either one," said Mike Figgs, a 40-year-old purchasing manager, trying to be polite. "It definitely sends a bad message to voters either way. What do you do?"

What do you do? Figgs was among about two dozen voters interviewed Tuesday at Dunkin' Donuts shops in Northern Virginia who expressed a range of reactions not so different from the so-called five stages of grief.

Denial: "We can't conclude anything until the investigations are over, right?" said Robert Fini, a 56-year-old technology project manager.

Anger: "It shows poor moral character," said Mike Smith, a 32-year-old government contractor. "They should know better. It's not just corruption but the appearance of corruption."

Bargaining: "I wish I had more than two candidates," said Leslie Campbell, a 53-year-old homemaker. "I wish there was a third choice."

Depression: "It's awful to be so apathetic," said Guarav Sirin, a 40-year-old director at a technology company. "I probably won't vote is what it comes down to, unfortunately. What difference does it make?"

And finally, acceptance: "There's always going to be scandals. They're politicians, right?" sighed Ben Tuben, a 23-year-old business analyst. "It's discouraging, but I will still vote."

The candidates were described alternately as "a jackass," "a dirty politician," "sketchy," and more awkwardly, as "just not good candidates." Not a single voter was enthusiastic about either nominee, foreshadowing participation even lower than the typically depressed turnout in a non-presidential election in an odd-numbered year.

"The ads absolutely turn me off," said Laura Essick, a 59-year-old executive assistant. "I just won't pay any attention."

A lower turnout is widely viewed as bad news for McAuliffe, who is depending on the young voters, women, and minorities who helped President Obama carry the state twice. Gubernatorial voters tend to be older and less diverse; those groups tend to vote Republican. A number of voters interviewed said they would likely be forced to fall back on their party allegiance to make a choice, leaving independent voters feeling particularly bewildered.

What's more, the deluge of attack ads at a time when voters are barely tuned in has left many with hazy recollections. "Something about borrowing money and not paying back loans?" asked Jasmine Smith, a 30-year-old technology consultant. "I got to make sure I make the right decision based on the facts."

"Isn't Cuccinelli the one who took money for his daughter's wedding?" asked Pete Baroody, a 35-year-old teacher. Told that it was Gov. Bob McDonnell's daughter — not Cuccinelli's — who got financial help for her wedding from businessman Johnnie Williams, Baroody sighed. "It's really confusing."

Such confusion doesn't bode well for Cuccinelli, who has gone to great lengths to try to distance himself from the governor. Most recently, he's called for a special legislative session to take up ethics reform, a request that the governor turned down. But mostly both candidates have fought fire with fire, trying to deflect attention away from their own scandal by drawing attention to the scandal plaguing the other guy. Cuccinelli's latest ad on the GreenTech investigation is literally titled "Scandal." The response from the McAuliffe campaign, without a trace of irony: "Ken Cuccinelli Trying to Distract from Ongoing Scandals."

"I know very little about anything but I know I've heard bad things about both of them," said one female voter who declined to give her name, in part because she is so disgusted with the race. "Jesus, who the hell am I supposed to vote for?"

Good question. The attack ads currently on television may not be of much help. After an initial spurt of introductory, positive ads, both candidates have gone almost exclusively negative. The finger-pointing between the two campaigns bears an uncanny resemblance to two schoolyard brawlers hauled into the principal's office. "They started it!" the Cuccinelli campaign said of the Virginia Democratic Party's July 12 attack ad, the first in the race.

"Already this race is far more negative than any in recent Virginia gubernatorial election history," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. "Both campaigns are loaded for bear, and seem to prefer shooting first at any opportunity. I think voters are going to have a hard time choosing, because by the time Election Day rolls around both candidates are probably going to be so tarnished, and the focus will have been on the personal and professional failings of the two candidates as opposed to policy."

A McAuliffe spokesman claimed both campaigns have spent about the same amount of money on positive ads, but the Democrats are leading when it comes to attack ads. McAuliffe has spent $2.3 million on television, compared with $2.2 million by Cuccinelli, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, but McAuliffe has also transferred more than $3 million to the Democratic Party of Virginia — which in turn has run three anti-Cuccinelli ads.

One voter headed into Dunkin' Donuts on Wednesday morning looked totally flummoxed when asked simply, "What do you think of these candidates?"

"I think," he said, "I need a cup of coffee."