In their first debate of 2013’s most closely watched race, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe kicked off their battle for Virginia governor taking shots at each other’s social and business records, as the growing scandal over the sitting governor weighed heavily over their first showdown.
Both men had sharp attacks ready from the beginning, with McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, repeatedly turning questions back to Cuccinelli’s conservative social views on abortion and gay marriage, while the Republican attorney general sought to criticize McAuliffe’s business record with his former electric car company, GreenTech.
The growing scandal around incumbent Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and Cuccinelli’s ties to the nutritional supplement company Star Scientific didn’t come until one hour into the contentious 90-minute debate, but the controversy may have been the most consequential moment of the face-off. McDonnell has faced growing scrutiny over thousands of dollars of gifts he and his wife and family received from Start Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr., and is at the center of a federal and state investigation.
Cuccinelli said it was “appropriate” for McDonnell to be asked whether he should resign amid the growing scandal, but said he wouldn’t weigh in on what the right course of action is for the incumbent.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the sitting attorney general to call for the resignation of the governor,” Cuccinelli said, when asked whether the man he hopes to succeed should step down.
McAuliffe said the state and federal investigations into McDonnell’s relationship with Williams should be allowed to play out and the he “shouldn’t be tried through the media.”
“Let’s let investigations go,” said McAuliffe. “And let’s not prejudge an investigation.”
But McAuliffe seized on Cuccinelli’s own ties to Williams, receiving thousands of dollars in gifts, staying at Williams’ waterfront property and a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Cuccinelli also owned owned stock in the nutritional supplement company, but Cuccinelli has since sold that stock. An independent investigation, which Cuccinelli asked for after amending his own disclosure forms earlier this year, cleared the attorney general of any wrongdoing earlier this week.
“Never was anything ever requested of me by Jonnie, and they never got anything,” said Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe repeatedly underscored Cuccinelli’s opposition of gay marriage and abortion as out of touch with Virginia, and charged that the attorney general’s divisive social views were driving business out of the state and causing companies to choose to locate elsewhere.
“[Cuccinelli] at one point said it should be a crime to be gay in Virginia,” said McAuliffe. “We’ve got to make Virginia open and welcoming.”
But on whether they would each seek to change existing laws in office, both demurred. Cuccinelli said that he wouldn’t push for a personhood amendment to define life beginning at conception and that we “can’t defy the constitution as it stands now.”
And while McAuliffe said he supported legalizing gay marriage and would sign a bill overturning the state’s ban if it got to his desk as governor, he said the likelihood of that moving through the GOP-controlled legislature was unlikely.
Cuccinelli’s most frequent line of attack was to paint McAuliffe, a longtime party fundraiser, as a Washington insider who would put his own needs above those of Virginia, and pointed back to his 2009 campaign for governor when he was looking at locating the company in Martinsville but eventually settled on Mississippi over the Old Dominion.
“I’ll be honest with you, it’s not easy starting a car company,” said McAuliffe, saying he made the best decision to protect his company’s shareholders.
“So you picked Mississippi—so run for governor in Mississippi,” Cuccinelli jabbed at his opponent.
On the contentious issue of immigration reform currently facing Congress, just across the river from the commonwealth, both sounded optimistic about a compromise. But while McAuliffe said he hoped a deal could be struck that included a pathway to citizenship, Cuccinelli declined to weigh in on whether he was for or against the pathway for 11 million illegal immigrants.
NBC’s Michael O’Brien contributed to this report.