McDonnell's Chance of 2016 Bid Dims with Scandal

Sunday, 28 Jul 2013 07:54 AM

By John Gizzi

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As Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell returned more than $120,000 in controversial loans in what has become a major embarrassment for the embattled Republican, political observers in the Old Dominion State agree that what looked like a promising career in national politics for McDonnell may now be in its twilight months.

According to a just-completed Public Policy Polling survey, McDonnell's approval rating among likely voters is at a record low of 36 percent statewide, with 41 percent disapproving. In addition, only 31 percent of Virginia voters consider McDonnell an ethical politician and 45 percent do not.

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State Republicans once proudly spoke of their governor as destined for bigger things when his term in Richmond runs out in January of 2014, but they now wonder whether McDonnell will be able to recover from the political fallout stemming from ongoing state and federal investigations into his relationship with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, who made the personal and business loans.

A year ago, McDonnell with his sparkling resume -- Notre Dame graduate, U.S. Army veteran, state legislator, state attorney general, and governor -- seemed destined for bigger things.

As chairman of the Republican Governors Association and an early supporter of Mitt Romney for president, the Virginian was widely mentioned as a vice presidential running mate for Romney or as attorney general under a "President Romney."

With Romney's defeat last fall, McDonnell star remained vibrant. He was touted as the strongest Republican opponent to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in 2014 and as a prospective GOP presidential contender in 2016.

All that speculation about "What next for Bob?" evaporated earlier this year, amid reports in the Washington Post about the controversial loans to McDonnell and wife Maureen from Northern Virginia multimillionaire Williams.

Along with the loans, Williams has reportedly made gifts of $15,000 for a shopping trip in New York by Mrs. McDonnell, a $6,500 Rolex watch (McDonnell insists his wife gave it to him), and thousands of dollars in gifts to their daughters at the time of their weddings.

Most Republican office-holders and party leaders in Virginia declined to go on the record about McDonnell and the controversy swirling around him. Several who talked to Newsmax on background pointed out that given Virginia's minimal regulations governing disclosure and gifts to state officials, McDonnell may well have broken no laws and thus may avoid trial and forced resignation.

"Assuming the FBI probe turns up nothing in the felony range, I think these issues will subside and he will remain viable," former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a past chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Newsmax. "Most of this stuff is pretty penny ante. Not pretty, but legal. The disclosure laws are very lax and seldom enforced."

But with the governor returning the loans to Williams and declaring he was "deeply sorry for the embarrassment," it is obvious that the negative publicity has taken its toll.

Many worry that the "McDonnell affair" could bring down Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli and the rest of the GOP state ticket.

According to the PPP poll, among likely voters in Virginia this fall, former Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, leads Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, by a margin of 41 percent to 37 percent statewide and Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis draws a surprisingly strong 7 percent of the vote.

As to whether Bob McDonnell can eventually recover from the present situation, at least one seasoned political observer felt it was possible.

Mark Kennedy, former Republican congressman from Minnesota and now director of the Graduate School of Political Management at Georgetown University, told Newsmax: "It has been a bad few months for Gov. McDonnell. However, Virginia's single term limit for governors could work in his favor. In a few months someone else will be in charge in Richmond and the intense light on the story could die down. That might afford him the ability to undertake some rehabilitative measures."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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