POLITICS: PennAve

Bob McDonnell shrinking in stature ahead of Virginia guv race

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Virginia,Steve Contorno,Terry McAuliffe,Ken Cuccinelli,Campaigns,PennAve,Bob McDonnell

A Quinnipiac University poll of Virginia voters released Wednesday shows a large portion of the population — almost 50 percent — still don’t know enough about the ongoing scandal surrounding Gov. Bob McDonnell, his wife and a high-profile donor to form an opinion.

That explains why 36 percent of the population still gives McDonnell a favorable rating compared to 33 percent who view him unfavorably. Those numbers represent the lowest net favorability of McDonnell’s tenure, but it also reflects how little some people pay attention to state politics in Virginia. After nearly four years in office, 28 percent of the voting population doesn’t have an opinion of the guy.

But here’s the crux: While there are plenty of people with little knowledge of the scandal — about 49 percent of the state — that figure is shrinking. In May, 63 percent hadn’t heard enough to form an opinion. And in that time, while the number of people who think there is no wrongdoing remains stuck at 16 percent, the percentage of voters who believe this is problematic has sharply grown from 12 percent to 27 percent. It's a slight oversimplification of the results, but basically, every person who has learned about the scandal from May to July thinks the governor did something wrong.

The Washington Post has driven most of the coverage of the fallout, revealing the many gifts, loans and handouts Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams gave the McDonnells. Many in the state’s press corps have followed suit with the national media occasionally weighing in as well, mostly from the standpoint of McDonnell’s sinking star in GOP circles. Though it has sparked a federal investigation, there still is no evidence McDonnell did anything illegal, and much of what has been unearthed doesn’t go beyond what a lot of cynical people expect from politicians — hobnobbing with insiders and taking advantage of perks. That is reflected in a lot of the poll numbers: 44 percent say McDonnell is trustworthy to just 36 who don’t, 72 percent believe McDonnell has more or as much integrity as any other politician, and just 16 percent say he should resign.

If there’s one other number that stands out, it’s the 41 percent who say they are not satisfied with how McDonnell is handling the whole thing, against 30 percent who think he’s doing fine. McDonnell has lawyered up at this point and is refusing to answer questions or come clean on exactly what Williams gave him and his family, which, from a legal standpoint, makes sense. But to the public, it doesn’t look good, and that is reflected in a growing number of people not happy with how this is playing out.

The whole debacle will likely come to a head in October, when McDonnell’s former mansion chef, Todd Schneider, will be tried for embezzlement. Schneider and his legal team have made it clear they plan to drag McDonnell and his family through the mud to score points. Of course, that trial is scheduled just weeks before the state’s marquee gubernatorial election. The big question is whether McDonnell will take down Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee for governor, along with him, drastically transforming the most watched political contest of a relatively quiet 2013 cycle. Cuccinelli has his own ties to Williams. He owned stock in the Henrico businessman’s company and vacationed at one of his homes. So far, there is no evidence that the FBI probe of McDonnell is also targeting Cuccinelli, but Democrats have already tried to make him look guilty by association.

So far, the race between Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe remains tight. A Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday showed McAuliffe with a lead within the margin of error, while the less reliable Roanoke College poll gave Cuccinelli a 6-point lead. Quinnipiac will be out with its assessment of the race on Thursday. Are the 15 percent of people now paying attention to the McDonnell scandal going to take it out on Cuccinelli? Unless there’s a question that ties the two together, it’s possible that they won’t yet. Wednesday’s poll showed 54 percent of those surveyed are satisfied with how things are going in Virginia, unchanged from May. So right now the turmoil is McDonnell’s alone. Of course, that could change later in the race, when Democrats will surely be up with ads linking Cuccinelli to Williams and perhaps even McDonnell. For a race with national implications that is already billed as heated and negative, the worst is yet to come.

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