The Dirtiest, Nastiest, Low-Down Campaign In America: Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe

While not all of the nastiness is the fault of the candidates, the race for Virginia governor has turned into the ugliest campaign in the country this year.

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Joe Mahoney / The Richmond Times-Dispatch / AP

From left: Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe at a luncheon sponsored by the Virginia Public Access Project, in Richmond, Va., on May 30, 2013.

The campaigns of Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the two major candidates for Governor in Virginia this year, both claim to be focused on positive messages about growing the economy and creating jobs in the Old Dominion. But nobody believes them.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” said one Republican operative close to the Cuccinelli campaign, a feeling shared by McAuliffe aides as well. A poll released Wednesday by the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling found both candidates suffering from underwater favorability ratings. More Virginia voters have become undecided on the race over the past five months.

A day later, when both men spoke at a luncheon in Richmond about government transparency, they spent their time attacking each other. Cuccinelli challenged McAulliffe to 15 debates, instead of the agreed upon five, and demanded the Democrat release more tax records. McAulliffe harped on Cuccinelli’s failure to disclose gifts and stock holdings in a Virginia dietary supplement company. It was just another day in what is shaping up to be the ugliest campaign in the country this year.

Not all of the nastiness is the fault of the candidates. Both campaigns have been at the receiving end of two of the most brutal outside opposition research and attack efforts by dueling Super PACs: Democratic-leaning American Bridge and Republican-backing America Rising.

Brought about by the Citizens United decision, these independent operations are self-contained vetting, tracking, and communications teams ready to rain hell on candidates from the opposing party fueled by unlimited corporate and donor money. In the 2012 cycle, American Bridge was the first to circulate Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape.” Its Republican foil, America Rising, was founded earlier this year following the Republican National Committee’s autopsy into its 2012 electoral defeat finding it needed a permanent outside research arm.

Chris Harris, a senior advisor for American Bridge, disputed the notion that their attacks were negative. “Cuccinelli and Jackson have made their careers out of saying extremely offensive things so that makes our job easy,” he told TIME. “If it’s negative, it means voters are turned off by what they said. We’re just telling voters what they stand for.”

Tim Miller, the former Republican party spokesman and the executive director of America Rising, said the birth of outside research groups has allowed candidates to focus more on their positive messages and less on destroying the opposing candidate.  “It’s our job to go out there and make sure he [Terry McAuliffe] is held accountable for his serial exaggerating and his long record of being a DC partisan and party insider,” he said.

But the end result is worse than before. Campaigns that once had the ability to control the tone of campaigns, now don’t have a choice. There’s so much mud being thrown now that has to be responded to, it’s hard to drive a positive message.

“It is the heat of battle and hard to do more than just reload and aim,” said Dr. John Geer, chair of the political science department at Vanderbilt.

But don’t take his word for it. Here is a timeline of the back and forth so far, with about five months to go:

November 8, 2012

Terry McAuliffe announces he will run for Virginia governor. In a letter to supporters obtained by Politico he writes, “It is absolutely clear to me that Virginians want their next Governor to focus on job creation and common sense fiscal responsibility instead of divisive partisan issues.”

February 12

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli releases a new book, “The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for  American Liberty.” Virginia Democratic legislators stage a public reading to highlight passages that would reinforce an image of Cuccinelli as a conservative ideologue.

March 27

American Bridge releases a Tumblr named “Ken on the Issues” painting Cuccinelli as too extreme for Virginia. One of the first posts:

Ken on the Issues

April 18

Cuccinelli opens up tax records to reporters from the past eight years.

April 22

Cuccinelli releases a video using McAuliffe’s statements on 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to pressure McAuliffe into releasing his own tax records. “If you have nothing to hide…then release the documents,” says McAuliffe in the video.

April 23

The Susan B. Anthony List releases the first paid ad as part of a $1.5 million pledge to Cuccinelli. The radio ad criticizes McAuliffe for opposing the Virginia Board of Health’s new regulations for abortion clinics, calling him “the candidate who has taken extreme positions far outside the mainstream….one candidate whose radical ideas are troubling to every woman in Virginia…Career politician Terry McAuliffe is too extreme for Virginia.”

PolitiFact later rates the ad “Pants on Fire.”

April 23

McAuliffe releases a six page summary of his tax records over the past three years. Cuccinelli campaign manager Dave Rexrode says in a statement that McAuliffe’s attempt “fell woefully short.”

April 26

Cuccinelli releases his first TV ad, which shows his wife celebrating his work against child predators and human traffickers, his college days working with people with mental illness, and his night shift at a homeless shelter.

April 27

Cuccinelli releases a video ripping McAuliffe’s tenure at GreenTech Auto, which failed to deliver on creating thousands of jobs as McAuliffe pledged.

May 1

Republican Governors Association calls McAuliffe, a “real family man” on Twitter for leaving his pregnant wife’s delivery room for a Washington Post party. He did get back in time for his daughter’s birth. McAuliffe wrote about the event in his book released in 2008, What a Party!
May 1

McAuliffe launches first TV ad emphasizing his background and 20 years in Virginia.

May 2

American Bridge releases a web ad asking what else Cuccinelli is hiding in the case of Star Scientific, a drug company under fire for misleading investors in which Cuccinelli has invested more than $10,000 worth of stock.

May 6

The Republican National Committee releases a video attacking McAuliffe for events described in What a Party!, including the time he stopped by a fundraiser on the drive back from the hospital after his son Peter was born.

May 13

Cuccinelli releases his second ad, “Your Side,” in which he describes that he is against tax loopholes and special giveaways, and for cutting taxes for the middle class.

May 16

Planned Parenthood endorses McAuliffe, who launches a “Women for Terry” group. His campaign forgets, however, to purchase the domain name.

Women for Terry

May 17

Dorothy McAuliffe defends her husband’s actions surrounding the birth of their children, responding in a written statement, “While Terry has always been there for me, I can stand on my own two feet and say that Mr. Cuccinelli should know that he will have me to answer to if he wants to intrude on our family life for political attacks.”

May 18

Cuccinelli calls McAuliffe a Washington insider/Virginia outsider in his Virginia GOP Convention speech. “So for Virginians who think Washington works well, they have a candidate in this race. And the Virginians who don’t think Washington works well, also have a candidate in this race,” he says.

May 20

Cuccinelli releases a third TV ad in which a police officer’s widow says, “I think Ken would make a great Governor.”

May 22

In his second ad, McAuliffe links himself to the landmark transportation bill compromise championed by Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, and recounts the Republican squabble over the legislation. The narrator says McAuliffe “reaches out to Democrats, and urges them to support the bill, and the bill passes.”

May 23

Cuccinelli releases a video of his CPAC speech, in which he touts his record as the first state Attorney General to file a lawsuit to stop Obamacare.

May 23

After McAuliffe announces that he would support offshore oil drilling, aligning himself with a bill introduced by Virginia Sens. Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D), America Rising goes to Tumblr and YouTube to portray McAuliffe as a flip-flopper.

PolitiFact would later agree that McAuliffe flip-flopped.

May 23

American Bridge posts footage of Cuccinelli saying that Obama is worse than King George III and has “trampled” on the Constitution. He also says in the video that it “doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility” that the President was born in Kenya.

May 28

Walter A. Stosch (R-Henrico), who chairs the Virginia Senate Finance Committee, says that even by the standards of a political ad, McAuliffe’s claim on brokering the bill is absurd.

May 28

Cuccinelli has suggested Planned Parenthood is racist, Politico reports, and Anna Scholl, executive director of the liberal advocacy group
Progress VA, says Cuccinelli and his running mate, E.W. Jackson, “can’t help themselves when it comes to outrageous attacks on women’s health care access.” American Bridge releases an ad of Jackson and Cuccinelli drawing connections between Planned Parenthood and racism.

May 29

America Rising posts on Tumblr “Terry the Exaggerator,” which shines light on a Washington Times article reporting that even some Democrats agree that McAuliffe played little role in the transportation bill.

Terry the Exaggerator

May 30

McAuliffe’s latest ad, “Focus,” repeats the goals he made in his opening letter to supporters announcing his candidacy. “There are some out there who are focused on a divisive, ideological agenda, and that’s just not helpful. It’s taking time away from the things that Virginia families want us to be focused on: job growth, economic development,” he says.

Cuccinelli campaign manager rebuts the new ad, telling the Washington Post, “After stretching the truth in previous advertisements, his third ad takes things to a whole new level. McAuliffe’s real jobs record has revealed itself as a string of broken promises.”

May 30

Cuccinelli and McAuliffe address a fundraising luncheon for the nonprofit, nonpartisan tracker of cash in state politics, the Virginia Public Access Project. Cuccinelli again asks McAuliffe to release his full tax returns and to debate him 15 times over the next five months. McAuliffe tells reporters he has agreed to the traditional five debates for Virginia gubernatorial candidates. When pressed on releasing more tax returns, McAuliffe says he has filed the required forms and that Cuccinelli did not disclose all of his gifts from Star Scientific.  (AP)


Josh Schwerin, Terry McAuliffe’s press secretary, tells TIME:

Terry and our team have been entirely focused on what’s most important in this election:  solutions to strengthen and diversify our economy as defense spending draws down and the Sequester hits us. Virginia’s the top recipient of federal dollars. So when extremist groups like the virulent anti-reproductive-rights Susan B. Anthony List outspend even the Cuccinelli campaign—and Republicans pick down-ticket candidates that reinforce Cuccinelli’s social agenda is his top cause—we think it strengthens the clarity of our message in contrast.

Ken Cuccinelli’s spokeswoman, Anna Nix, tells TIME:

Ken Cuccinelli is focused on his vision for growing the economy and easing burdens on job creators and middle-class families. Unlike his opponent, Cuccinelli has spent the last several weeks unveiling specific policy proposals to grow the economy, create jobs, and utilize all of our natural resources to reduce energy prices. Ken believes it is important that every Virginian has the opportunity to hear the candidates’ ideas for our future, which is why he proposed 15 debates across the Commonwealth. In the months ahead, you will continue to see Ken Cuccinelli spread his message of smaller government, lower taxes, and more jobs throughout Virginia.


A previous version of this article stated that one of Terry McAuliffe’s ads made the claim that he “helped negotiate” the transportation bill.