Less than a month ago, Terry McAuliffe was riding high. He had a lead outside the margin of error in the Quinnipiac poll. Ken Cuccinelli was still being dragged down by his connections to Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Cuccinelli couldn’t seem to find his footing or a message. Things were looking bright for McAuliffe to make the transition from bagman to prince.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Terry’s coronation…he began to unravel. Ken Cuccinelli unveiled the best campaign ad of 2013. It has been winning over focus groups and has helped Ken Cuccinelli establish a campaign narrative. Independents, the key group in any Virginia election, are turning sour on Terry.
Then Ken Cuccinelli did what he should have done months earlier — he cut a check for the equivalent amount of the gifts he received from Jonnie Williams. Cuccinelli took a press hit for it — which was always going to be the case — but the story seems to have died owing to lack of voter interest.
That hurts McAuliffe. A lot. The ads he was running on Cuccinelli and Williams were the most effective his campaign had produced. Now, the central theme of those ads is gone.
If that had been the end of matters, McAuliffe could probably have muddled through and done quite well in November. But it wasn’t.
The disciplined campaigner (at least in this outing) was horrendously undisciplined before the Northern Virginia Technology Council. McAuliffe’s frat-boy flippancy cost him the Tech PAC’s coveted endorsement. Not that his allies (including Bill Bolling) didn’t try mightily, and perhaps illegally, to get the PAC to change its mind.
Then we got some new poll numbers.
Quinnipiac’s latest poll finds the governor’s race a statistical tie. McAuliffe’s spokesmen brushed it off:
— Ryan Nobles (@ryanobles) September 18, 2013
Fair enough. So let’s try a second poll, out today:
— PilotOnPolitics (@PilotOnPolitics) September 19, 2013
Perhaps McAuliffe’s people can take comfort in these numbers. But not too much. They show a race that is still up for grabs, and likely more sensitive to events, campaign actions and candidate statements than was the case during the summer.
If so, then McAuliffe’s most recent waffling is not a good omen. It’s even less so when we consider the Washington Post headline to this story — “McAuliffe on defensive as Cuccinelli gets a boost”:
Asked about the behind-the-scenes push to change [NVTC PAC] the endorsement, McAuliffe said he was in the dark. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said, pivoting immediately to another subject.
The endorsement episode seemed especially damaging to McAuliffe because some members of TechPAC board’s said McAuliffe came off as ill-prepared and superficial in his interview with the group. As an Irish Catholic, he’d be good at schmoozing with people to support his agenda over drinks, McAuliffe told the board, two members told The Washington Post.
“These were partisan attacks. I mean, come on,” McAuliffe said when asked about the account. “I think what everybody knows is the amount of time that I have spent traveling to every nook and cranny in Virginia, talking about those issues that matter. I have put out a very substantive policy plan on all different issues. This is what I talk about from morning till night, seven days a week.”
McAuliffe also seemed to back off what had sounded like a solemn vow: not to sign a budget that does not include money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. GOP leaders have said the campaign promise amounts to a threat to shut down the government given opposition to expanding the health-care program in the Republican-dominated House.
Asked whether he really meant that he would not sign a budget without the expansion, McAuliffe said: “I always say, ‘Please make sure you send a budget that has the Medicaid expansion.’?” He has left off the “please” in at least three campaign appearances.
And we have it on video, too:
And we have more video here:
“Please” is not mentioned in either clip.
It’s still far too early to say who will win the November election. But Democrats have been fed, and have eagerly consumed, the idea that not only would Terry win, but there would be a Democratic sweep. History was in the making. All would be bright in officially blue Virginia.
They believe it still. They do so at their peril, because the guy at the top of the ticket is slowly unraveling. And if Terry goes, the rest of the Democratic ticket will follow.