Five Takeaways From Virginia Gubernatorial Debate

Corruption, Mississippi, and the ‘personal challenge of homosexuality,’ all on a Saturday morning? Ben Jacobs reports on the first debate in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election.

Steve Helber/AP

It may not have Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer, but Virginia’s gubernatorial race will likely be the most consequential campaign of 2013. The first debate took place Saturday morning via an Internet live-stream moderated by PBS’s Judy Woodruff. Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, sparred with Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and former chair of the Democratic National Committee. If you weren’t sitting at your computer watching, these were the five big takeaways of the debate.

‘The Personal Challenge of Homosexuality’

Cuccinelli has been a vocal social conservative at a national level and has even been advertising his efforts to reinstate Virginia’s ban on sodomy. McAuliffe attacked him for being anti-gay, and the Virginia attorney general responded by saying that he was more focused on economic issues than on social ones. But when pressed, Cuccinelli said, “My personal beliefs about the personal challenge of homosexuality haven't changed."

Should Gov. McDonnell Resign?

Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, is embroiled in a scandal over his ties to Star Scientific, a nutritional-supplements company. McDonnell is being investigated over allegations that he accepted gifts from the company’s CEO, Jonnie Williams, in exchange for using his influence to promote Star Scientific’s products. As a result, some Democrats are already calling on him to resign. Not surprising, McAuliffe dodged the question, but so did Cuccinelli, a political ally who ran on the same ticket as McDonnell in 2009.

No Opinion on Path to Citizenship

The candidates were also asked about the ongoing efforts in Washington to pass comprehensive immigration reform. McAuliffe raved enthusiastically about the bill before Congress and tied it to state legislation. If elected, he said that “it would be one of my finest hours to sign the DREAM Act.” Cuccinelli wavered, saying he had “no opinion on a path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. This marked yet another step in Cuccinelli’s move to the center on immigration reform. Although the Virginia attorney general helped defend Arizona’s controversial immigration law and sponsored legislation as a state senator to ban illegal immigrants from attending Virginia colleges, his campaign removed immigration from its website’s issues page in March.

‘Why Don’t You Run for Governor of Mississippi?’

In addition to his business career, McAuliffe has spent decades involved in lobbying and as one of the biggest fundraisers for the Clintons and the Democratic Party. This has given Cuccinelli plenty of ammunition to attack him as an unsavory wheeler-dealer. In particular, Cuccinelli harped on McAuliffe backing out of a deal to locate a factory in rural southwest Virginia and building it in Mississippi instead. When McAuliffe complained that this was a business decision, his Republican opponent retorted, “Why don’t you run for governor of Mississippi?”

Ending Gridlock in Northern Virginia

The debate didn’t focus just on personal attacks and national issues. One of the most controversial issues in the Old Dominion is transportation. The traffic in northern Virginia is notoriously bad, but legislators have long been reluctant to raise taxes to generate the revenue needed to expand roads and build more mass transit. McDonnell achieved a bipartisan deal in February that raised the sales tax to fund new transportation projects. This deal was opposed by Cuccinelli, but supported by McAuliffe. Both sparred over the details of the legislation, as each candidate tried to present himself as the one who could end gridlock in northern Virginia.