McDonnell Scandal Threatens Virginia's Race For Governor

Polls show Cuccinelli, McAuliffe tied in Virginia's race for governor.

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Steve Helber/AP)

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are tied in polls, and neither is very popular with voters.

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Virginia's gubernatorial race could be complicated by the controversy swirling around Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is currently being investigated for possibly taking gifts from political donors.

But no one knows how problematic the case could be just yet. That's because McDonnell, a popular centrist rumored to have 2016 presidential ambitions, distanced himself earlier this year from current Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a base-rousing conservative currently serving as the state's Attorney General. Meanwhile Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, who is working to appeal to independent and right-leaning business leaders, sought to embrace signature McDonnell policies.

"We really don't know how what's happening with McDonnell is going to play out," says Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst. "And what's interesting is that so far, Democrats really haven't tried to take advantage of this. McAuliffe had been in many ways cozying up to McDonnell, and his transportation plan and contrasting McDonnell's pragmatism, with Cuccinelli's supposed hard-line ideology and at the same time, McDonnell was just fending off these various investigations."

[READ: Va. Legislator Demands Gov. Bob McDonnell Resign]

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are tied in polls, according to an average by RealClearPolitics.com, and neither is very popular with voters, many of whom are not yet paying close attention to the race.

"There's a lot to dislike about both of these guys and everybody seems to be pointing that out," says Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy & Opinion Research at Roanoke College.

But Cuccinelli's ability to fire up his base thanks to his social conservative credentials may end up being his greatest asset in the likely low-turnout, off-year election, Wilson says.

"Who's more excited than the others? At this point in time, Cuccinelli has a base he can excite – it's not a gigantic base, it's not close to a majority of Virginians," he says. "It's difficult for me to find McAuliffe's base that is excited. Clearly they support him, clearly they think he is infinitely better than Ken Cuccinelli. If that's the best thing you have to say about somebody, that's not a rousing endorsement."

[READ: Virginia Voters Don't Seem to Care Who The Next Governor Is]

For their part, the opposing campaigns are content to spar throughout the summer in search of an issue that sticks.

Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix says McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser prior to running for office, lacks business credibility and substance and has misled Virginians on his record.

"This intersects with McAuliffe's failure to offer substantive or serious policy proposals, while at the same time embracing ruinous liberal policies such as whole-hearted support for Obamacare, contempt for right-to-work and praise for the White House's self-proclaimed 'war on coal,'" she says.

Josh Schwerin, spokesman for the McAuliffe campaign, says his candidate is focused on improving the economy while "Cuccinelli is struggling with two ethics scandals."

[ALSO: White House Gate Crasher Tareq Salahi Doing Write-In Campaign for Virginia Governor]

"Cuccinelli's campaign has been defined by extremism and now scandal, while Terry has been gaining bipartisan support for his mainstream economic focus," he says.

Wilson says it will take time to see whether or not any of the hot issues of the moment have any real impact on the race.

"People aren't paying that much attention to these things," he says. "What they are going to tune into depends on when they tune in and what's going on at that point."

 

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