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McDonnell ethics questions cloud GOP hopes for retaining governor's mansion

The marquee political campaign of 2013 has been subsumed by an ethics investigation involving Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s dealings with a major benefactor – a blow for Republicans in this competitive gubernatorial contest.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks with supporters at the Lynchburg Regional Airport terminal on Tuesday May 21, 2013. Jill Nance / AP

Republican State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has already encountered challenges as an unapologetic social conservative running to lead a state that has become increasingly competitive for Democrats in recent years. Now, the ethical troubles surrounding McDonnell threaten to become a millstone weighing on his campaign.

Once a rising GOP star regarded highly for his discipline and savvy, McDonnell has been beset in recent months by questions surrounding gifts he and his family allegedly accepted from Jonnie Williams, Jr., the head of Star Scientific, a dietary supplements manufacturer.

McDonnell’s approval rating sunk to a new low amid a series of reports detailing the allegations, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday. But because the term-limited governor has only a handful of months left on the job; the Star Scientific imbroglio poses a far bigger political threat to Cuccinelli.

A new Quinnipiac University poll this week found that Democrat Terry McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli, 43 percent to 39 percent, among registered voters. And while 70 percent of Virginians said that the current governor’s troubles would not affect their choice of a successor, the numbers also suggested that the controversy still hadn’t penetrated public consciousness, meaning the politics remain fluid.

"The governor's troubles affect us no more than Terry McAuliffe's own widely publicized and well-known brushes with the law and ethical lapses," said Chris LaCivita, a strategist for the Cuccinelli campaign.

But Democrats are eager to make McDonnell’s troubles into a central issue of the gubernatorial campaign, a race many political observers treat as an important bellwether, since it always occurs a year following each presidential election.

“This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said Mo Eilleithee, a Democratic strategist with ties to Virginia politics. “It’s an issue that’s top-of-mind in Virginia right now.”

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“The Washington Post is trying to do a number on Bob McDonnell such as they did on George Allen,” said Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s longtime Republican National Committeeman, referencing the state’s former governor and senator who made waves in 2006 when he used the word “macaca” to refer to a Indian-American staffer for a rival campaign. “But they have not, I think, had a substantial effect even on the governor.”

The gifts are now the subject of a federal grand jury investigation into McDonnell, who recently added former federal prosecutor John Brownlee to his legal team and hired veteran GOP communicator Rich Galen.

For his part, McDonnell has blasted the media for spreading “out-of-control rumors” about his ethics, but has otherwise resisting commenting about the specifics of the allegations against him, citing the ongoing investigations.

The political dynamic is further complicated by Cuccinelli’s own ties to Williams and Star Scientific. Cuccinelli also accepted gifts from Williams, including use of a vacation home. The attorney general also bought a large amount of Star Scientific stock compared to the rest of his investments, selling a portion for profit.

Cuccinelli named a special prosecutor to investigate McDonnell, and also ordered a review by a Virginia state prosecutor of his own disclosures. That prosecutor  said Thursday that he found no evidence that the attorney general broke the law when he failed to disclose those gifts and stock holdings.

“His involvement was miniscule compared to the McDonnell family, and there aren't any suggestions that he was in a position to do favors,” said Blackwell in defense of Cuccinelli. “And the amount of monetary value of things he received was very small and not at all unusual or scandalous.”

But the attention to Star Scientific situation has threatened to become a distraction for the Cuccinelli campaign, forcing the attorney general to spend more time talking about ethics than his preferred issues of taxes and the state’s economic resilience amid the recent recession. But Cuccinelli is also in a tough spot: He had previously tried to glom onto McDonnell’s reputation as a center-right steward of Virginia’s economic growth, but now must work to distance himself from the incumbent Republican governor – especially if the situation involving McDonnell becomes worse.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gestures as he answers reporters questions in Richmond, Va., Monday, June 24, 2013. Steve Helber / AP

“He obviously can’t be silent, especially if this thing gets more out of control,” said Elleithee. “But if he tries to get out there and be aggressive, the more questions he’s going to have to answer about his own involvement with Star Scientific.”

McAuliffe’s campaign is not without its own challenges, though. Cuccinelli has seized upon the troubles of GreenTech, an environmental automaker McAuliffe helped found, to call into question the Democrat’s business record. Republicans have gleefully pointed to Greentech’s struggles to meet the fantastic projections McAuliffe made at its launch. What’s more, the firm was established not in Virginia, but in Mississippi – meaning jobs weren’t added in the Old Dominion.

Those themes are almost certain to play out on Saturday, when McAuliffe and Cuccinelli square off for their first debate of the campaign on Saturday morning. Virginia’s ethics rules and McAuliffe’s proposal to beef up restrictions on gifts to the state’s elected officials are sure to loom large in the showdown. McAuliffe will also look to seize on Cuccinelli’s well-documented social conservatism, seeking to paint the Republican as out-of-touch in a state that has transformed itself from a foothold of the Old South into a diverse, 21st Century swing state.

The attorney general, in turn, will look to paint his opponent as a political opportunist with scant experience in either the private sector or in government – themes the Cuccinelli campaign has stressed throughout the race.

Whether any of those questions will escape the shadow of McDonnell’s recent troubles remains to be seen.