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Why Terry McAuliffe's winning in the race for governor

Democratic fundraiser and Clinton consigliereTerry McAuliffe has been pummeled in the press of late by the Ken Cuccinelli (R) campaign. There have been plenty of stories about GreenTech Automotive, McAuliffe’s fledgling car company that he moved to Mississippi and hasn’t exactly gotten off to a booming start.

So, why is it then that McAuliffe is up 48-42 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll among likely voters over his Republican attorney general rival?

Simple: Follow the money.

McAuliffe and allies outspent Cuccinelli and his allies on the TV airwaves by at least $1.5 million in the two months prior to that poll. (Although the McAuliffe campaign points out that in the last three weeks, the difference has been only about $400,000, as Cuccinelli and his allies were largely dark in the first half of July.)

No one on either side believes McAuliffe is up as much as he is in the Quinnipiac poll, but everyone agrees McAuliffe is narrowly ahead by a couple of points.

And that has to be disconcerting for Cuccinelli. The summer has gone about as well as it could for him – of things that are within his control, anyway.

The Republican firebrand candidate for lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson, a pastor and political neophyte, has been kept under wraps. Cuccinelli has stayed disciplined with his message. His campaign has been relentless on McAuliffe’s business record. And McAuliffe has been pulverized in free press. (The McAuliffe campaign contends, though, that there have been more Star Scientific stories than GreenTech even in free media.)

Democrats have had big advantage has been on the air, where they have returned the favor, dinging Cuccinelli for his record – from his investigation into a climate scientist at the University of Virginia to his ties to Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams -- whose donations to Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) have landed him in hot water – to what Cuccinelli’s office did or didn’t do as it related to a dispute between energy companies and land owners. One of those companies, Consol Energy, has donated at least $100,000 to Cuccinelli’s attorney general races and $25,000 for his gubernatorial bid.

Out of the Cuccinelli campaign’s control has been the impact of the circumstances surrounding McDonnell on the Republican candidate, given that he also has received donations from Williams. A Quinnipiac poll out Thursday morning shows McDonnell has taken a hit in his favorability ratings and how “honest and trustworthy” he is. Both sides believe the fallout from what’s happened with McDonnell has weakened Cuccinelli – at least somewhat.

Remember, McDonnell was hugely popular before all this, and analysts were saying Cuccinelli needed to follow his model from the 2009 campaign, where McDonnell stressed jobs and a moderate message.

While pro-McAuliffe groups have dominated on air so far, Republicans have already picked up the pace, booking plenty of ad time for the rest of August and September that will quickly even things out.

The Republican Governors Association is carrying the bulk of the load for Cuccinelli. In fact, the DC committee is the top donor in this race, contributing $4.8 million so far. And expect more. Just in the last two weeks, the RGA has poured in $2 million earmarked specifically for ad spending.

Also, notice all those ads from the Democratic Party of Virginia that hit Cuccinelli hard? This may be by design. Candidates don’t like to have their names attached to negative ads, especially when they’re candidate isn’t exactly overwhelmingly well liked in the first place.  And McAuliffe has transferred more than $3 million to the Democratic Party of Virginia. In doing this, a candidate avoids signing off that he approves of the message.

McAuliffe and pro-McAuliffe groups have been able to do all this because McAuliffe has doubled Cuccinelli in fundraising -- $12.7 million to $7.7 million. McAuliffe also nd has more cash on hand -- $6 million to $2.7 million, allowing him to spend more over the summer, which is why the RGA has stepped in.

Another interesting facet to this race is where the money is coming from. There's a long list of Clinton alumni, for example, who have given to McAuliffe, including the former president, Bill Clinton himself, who cut a $100,000 check for his former party chairman and money man. Here are some notables:

$250,000 Robert L Johnson Monroe, CT

$250,000 Law Office of Peter G Angelos Baltimore, MD

$250,000 Haim Saban Beverly Hills, CA

$107,161 Douglas Band New York, NY

$100,000 Ron W Burkle West Hollywood, CA

$100,000 William Jefferson Clinton Chappaqua, NY

$100,000 Fred Eychaner Chicago, IL

$80,117 Marc Lasry New York, NY

There are also some notable outside contributors who have donated large amounts to 527s to support one candidate or the other.

For Cuccinelli, New York hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer gave $500,000 to a group he created to support Cuccinelli. It’s the single-largest contribution since at least 1997 when the Virginia Public Access Project began tracking money in Virginia politics.

For McAuliffe, California environmentalist Tom Steyer isn’t far behind. He has spent $400,000 on ads through his group NextGen Climate Action, hitting Cuccinelli on his investigation into a University of Virginia climate scientist.

Labor groups have given McAuliffe $1.2 million. Consol Energy and the Koch Brothers have given to Cuccinelli.

But for all the money in this race, it hasn't yet approached the amount spent in the 2009 race, which was the most expensive governor's race in Virginia history. So far, $14.6 million has been spent, but that’s just reporting through June. In 2009, $53.4 million was spent on the whole race.

Stay tuned.