Arlington Local and statewide candidates for office appeared at an unprecedented forum in Northern Virginia last weekend, a collaboration of minority business groups of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. But as candidates arrived at the Annandale campus of the Northern Virginia Community College for a Sunday afternoon forum, voters realized that the tone of the campaign would remain unrelentingly negative.
"Politics has become a blame game. They are always talking about what the other candidate is and how that's not working, but they never say how they can fix it or what is going to lead to fixing it."
— Deborah Williams of Fairfax City
"All three of the Republican candidates are Tea Party right wing extremists," said Del. Ken Plum (D-36), who is running unopposed. "Look at their records and their stands on the issues."
Plum attacked Cuccinelli's lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act as well as his investigation into a University of Virginia professor studying climate change. The longtime delegate also said the Republican attorney general candidate Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-25) has a similar record, including a bill that would have required women to report abortions to police. Together with the candidate for lieutenant governor, Plum said, the ticket is Tea Party from top to bottom.
"For some reason, some folks in the Democratic Party think that the label Tea Party is going to stimulate some kind of negative feelings," said Jay McConville, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee. "But I think those people are great patriots, and they are supporting the candidates they think are best for the commonwealth."
AS CANDIDATES for governor took the stage to make their case to voters, the tone of the campaign remained starkly negative. Each of the candidates spent as much time talking about their own vision of the future as they did castigating their opponent as someone who would harm Virginia. For Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli: "My time as attorney general and my time in the state Senate leaves me as the only candidate who would show up on day one knowing how Virginia government works from having participated in it. I will not need on the job training if you elect me on November 5th, and I'm the only candidate who can say that."
For weeks, Republicans have been criticizing Democrat Terry McAuliffe for threatening to shut down Virginia government unless the General Assembly agreed to expand Medicaid. McAuliffe attempted to beat back that argument during the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce debate, pledging that he would not force a shutdown. Meanwhile, the Democrat is now criticizing the Republican for appearing at a fundraiser with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whom Democrats say is the architect of the government shutdown.
"Ken Cuccinelli was apparently more concerned about his reputation with the Tea Party than with ending the government shutdown that is undermining Virginia's economy," said McAulifffe. "It's the obligation of Virginians to send a message to Washington. A government shutdown should never be a bargaining chip."
WITH ELECTION DAY only four weeks away, candidates and their advisors are preparing for the most intense and high-stakes portion of the race. Both of the major-party candidates are responding to that dynamic by trying to frame their opposition in the most negative way possible. That leaves Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis rising in the polls as his opponents take shots at each other. After McAuliffe and Cuccinnelli finished Sunday evening, Sarvis offered a critical review.
"A lot of negative attacks. Not a whole lot of substance," said Sarvis, who is polling at about 10 percent support. "And if you want to see dysfunction of voting out of fear for the lesser of two evils, look at the federal government right now."
After the candidates were finished making their pitches, many of the voters had a hard time processing what they heard. The stump speeches left many wondering what the candidates would do if elected. Many of the voters at the Annandale forum said they felt the tone of the campaign had become distractingly negative, a series of attacks and counter-attacks that left many feeling isolated from the process.
"Politics has become a blame game," said Deborah Williams of Fairfax City. "They are always talking about what the other candidate is and how that's not working, but they never say how they can fix it or what is going to lead to fixing it."
RECENT POLLS have shown a clear and growing lead for McAuliffe, with the Democrat running five to seven percentage points ahead of the Republicans. That lead grows even larger if the Libertarian is included in the polls, giving the Democrat an eight-point lead in one poll. Republicans reject the idea that their candidates are in trouble, though. When asked about polling numbers, McConville said Republicans seem more motivated than the Democrats.
"I think that there's a lack of feeling of that same kind of excitement on the McAuliffe side," said McConville. "He's obviously a problematic candidate."
Democrats say they feel national Republicans have delivered an October surprise that has harmed their side, the government shutdown. On the campaign trail and in interviews, Democrats are making the case that Cuccinelli and the Republican ticket are aligned with obstructionists in Washington.
"I feel that Ken Cuccinelli is at a desperate point in his campaign," said Del. Charniele Herring (D-46), who is chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. "He attacked Terry time and time again instead of talking about what he would do for Virginia.”