VA governor's race a harbinger of 2014

Back in 2009 when Scott Brown won a surprise victory in the Massachusetts senate race, Chris Christie took the New Jersey governor's race, and Bob McDonnell won in a landslide to take the Virginia governor's seat, it was believed at the time that those three races augered well for GOP prospects in the 2010 mid terms.

This year, it's a little different. In 2013, Christie is heavily favored for re-election, and the Massachusetts senate race is close but the GOP candidate Gabriel Gomez is running uphill.

What about Virginia?

Perhaps no other statewide race will be watched with more interest this year than the Virginia governor's race. And the Republicans just upped the ante by nominating three strong conservatives for statewide office.


Rejuvenated by a Democratic scandal in Washington and a tea party conservative atop their ticket, Virginia Republicans Saturday nominated a trio of statewide candidates whose fate will be closely watched as an indicator of the health of the national GOP.

Crusading state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, facing no intra-party opposition, accepted the Republican gubernatorial nomination at the state convention here and used his remarks to preempt attacks on his conservative views and lash Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent.

Conservative state Sen. Mark Obenshain, whose father was the Virginia GOP's Senate nominee 35 years ago only to die in a plane crash, easily beat a single opponent to win the attorney general race here. And thanks in part to what was far by the best-received speech of the day, E.W. Jackson, a little-known conservative, African-American pastor, won the lieutenant governor nomination in an upset, besting six opponents after four ballots.

Virginia Democrats, gleeful about Jackson's win, immediately seized on the ultra-conservative nature of the GOP ticket.

With a joke about not having yet been audited, Cuccinelli made only one direct reference to the recent controversies embroiling President Barack Obama. But the Republican standard bearer sought to tie McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman, to the nation's capital.

"For Virginians who think Washington works well, they have a candidate in this race," said Cuccinelli. "For the rest of the Virginians who don't think Washington works so well, well, you have a candidate in this race, too."

While the attorney general kept to his message of inoculating against Democratic attacks and battering McAuliffe, the candidates vying for the two down-ballot offices, Virginia's Republican members of Congress and many of the 8,000 delegates gathered in a sign-festooned sports arena in this state capital were focused on what has transpired up Interstate 95 in the last two weeks.

McAuliffe is eminently beatable and the former DNC chair has already begun excoriating Cucccinelli for his tea party connections. National Democrats are watching the race closely to see how McAuiliffe fares against a Republican base energized by scandal and smelling blood in the water by trying to tie McAuliffe to a damaged Obama.

It is doubtful that being a strong conservative alone will work against the three nominees. But Cuiccinelli has some  disclosure problems * with a friend and donor to his campaigns whose company, Star Scientific, is under investigation:

The company's CEO, Jonnie Williams, whom Cuccinelli said he met in 2009, has given the attorney general gifts that total $18,000, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Cuccinelli failed to disclose Williams' and Star Scientific's gifts, which in addition to the cash, included a stay at Williams' Goochland County house and a $1,500 Thanksgiving dinner in 2010. Cuccinelli also recused his office from handling a case involving Star Scientific and a $707,000 tax bill because of his connection to Williams, the Virginian Pilot reports. Cuccinelli's attempts to cast himself as straight-laced could be undermined by his repeated failures to disclose the gifts, political grist that McAuliffe used to call for stricter rules governing disclosure of political gifts.

McAuliffe, on the other hand, is not scandal free himself with controversial ties to a failing green tech company giving the lie to his claim that he is a job creator.

 McAuliffe is hinging his campaign on his record as a businessman and jobs creator. (In his failed 2009 campaign for governor, he once said he created more than 100,000 jobs.) But he's still arguing he knows how to create jobs. It's in that context that his resignation as chairman of GreenTech matters. The company underperformed expectations, with McAuliffe saying last year GreenTech would employ 900 people in Mississippi by the end of the year. But the firm employs only 78 in Mississippi and 10 people in Virginia. 

Virginia officials were given the chance to bid for a GreenTech plant to be built in the state, but they had "grave doubts" about the firm's business model, the New York Times reports. The Cuccinelli campaign is seizing on McAuliffe's link to GreenTech, compiling a 58-page report of opposition research. Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli's political strategist, told the paper the campaign intends to make GreenTech an issue in the campaign.

These local scandals will play a larger role in the campaign than anything happening in Washington. And both parties will see the result next November as a straw in the wind for how things might unfold in 2014.

* A previous version of this blog post identified Cuccinelli as allowing a donor to pay for catering at his daughter's wedding. That allegation has been made against Governor McDowell, not Cuccinelli.

I regret the error.