Va. election season underway

This November, Virginians elect a governor, a lieutenant governor and a secretary of state. Also, all 100 seats in the 100-member House of Delegates, lower house of the Virginia General Assembly (the state legislature) and some local offices are up for grabs.

Virginia is the quintessential swing state these days. In 2008, it gave its electoral votes to Obama and elected three new Democratic Congresspersons. But the very next year, 2009, the Republicans swept the board, electing the governor, the lieutenant governor, the state attorney general and a majority in the House of Delegates.

In 2010, the Democrats lost three congressional seats, putting things back to where they were before 2008. Then last year, Virginia went for Obama again, and the Democrats kept the U.S. Senate seat that was up for re-election (Democrat Tim Kaine replacing Democrat Jim Webb).

As in the rest of the country, the factor that most closely explains this swinging back and forth is turnout of the base. In 2008 and 2012, the Democratic base of African-Americans, Latinos, youth and lower income workers turned out massively, but this was not the case in 2009 and 2010.

Currently the governor, Bob McDonnell, is a Republican, but he can't succeed himself due to a term limits clause in the Virginia Constitution.  So the probable Republican candidate is the present Attorney General, Ken Cuccinnelli. The probable democratic candidate for governor is Terry McAuliffe, a veteran figure in national Democratic Party affairs. This will not be nailed down until the June 11 Virginia Primary. Cuccinelli is the current wild man of Virginia politics. Though the coal industry influences both Republican and Democratic candidates, he is seen as being particularly close to the Koch brothers. He is also more attuned to the agenda of the Tea Party than some Republican Party elders in this state would perhaps like.

Cuccinelli has not been shy about burnishing his ultra right credentials. He has been a hard liner on "Obamacare", immigration, reproductive rights and other social issues.  He was the first state attorney general to file suit to stop "Obamacare".

But his greatest notoriety has been as a global warming skeptic willing to use his government position to push his agenda, which aligns neatly with the fossil fuels industry's interests. He has, for example, sued the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to overturn its ruling that greenhouse gases are  a major contributor to global warming.

What raised eyebrows highest was his attempt to use the office of Attorney General to go after a former University of Virginia academic, Dr. Michael Mann, on the subject of global warming.  Cuccinelli, in his official capacity, subpoenaed the university in 2010 to demand that they turn over to him Mann's emails.

The idea was to prove that Mann and the University had defrauded the taxpayers of Virginia by peddling fake science to get government grants on the subject of global warming. Had Cuccinelli won the suit, every academic employee of every college and university in Virginia, and perhaps the country, would have had to be constantly looking over their shoulders, to see if some police agency was perchance going to come after them for defrauding the taxpayers. Today it could be global warming skeptic Cuccinelli, tomorrow it could be the "intelligent design" crowd. The protest from academic and civil liberties organizations was incandescent and immediate.

The Virginia Supreme Court eventually threw out the case, but not before it had cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Many Virginians thought that Cuccinelli had made a big fool of himself with this bizarre escapade, but in one respect it was successful: In January it was reported that Koch brothers interests had contributed $50,000 to his gubernatorial campaign. Several other energy sector corporations came through too.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democrats' probable gubernatorial candidate, is a well-known figure in the councils of the Democratic Party; the chief skill attributed to him is campaign fund raising. He is a banker and developer, and was chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005. He ran for governor in 2009, but was defeated by Creigh Deeds in the Democratic Primary. Deeds then lost to Republican Bob McDonnell, the incumbent.

In his initial campaign statements, McAuliffe has not broken any special new ground on the issues. He is stressing the need to create new jobs in Virginia. Virginia has a lower than average unemployment rate, 5.5 percent compared to the national rate of 7.9 percent, and is one of the wealthier states, overall, but there are pockets of dire poverty in the depressed Southern Appalachian coal country and along the Virginia-North Carolina border.

Until now, low unemployment has been a bragging point for the Republicans, who tend to attribute this relatively positive statistic to the fact that Virginia is a "right to work" state where only 4.6 percent of the workforce is unionized.

(Unemployment rates also vary greatly by region within the state: They are very high in the distressed coal mining districts of Southern Appalachia and along the Virginia-North Carolina border, but much lower in the bustling D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia.

The incumbent Republican lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling, may also run for governor as an independent.

So far, polls are showing McAuliffe slightly ahead.

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