It is only June and it will only get worse. As it becomes increasingly clear that the Governor's race in Virginia will become the premier race in the country, the role of independent partisan groups will continue to play an important part in deciding who Virginia's next governor will be.
Most of the groups operate with very little public data explaining where their funding comes from and for the most part outside of Virginia. Their support comes in direct and indirect ways, designed to keep up the pressure on both candidates in what TIME magazine called one "of the dirtiest low-down campaign(s) in recent history".
The most obvious examples comes in the form of cash. Monday's second quarter pre-primary financial disclosure reports outline that support. Both Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R) took in millions from their respective partisan Governor's Associations.
McAuliffe received a healthy $2 million from the Democratic Governor's Association, Cuccinelli has taken in a total of $2 million over two different reports from the Republican Governor's Association. Both very active political groups count most of their fund raising from sources outside of Virginia.
But the political organizations are one thing. Much like the race for president last year, independent groups, who by law must not be associated directly with the campaigns have already become big players in this race and their influence is only going to grow.
In response to TIME's tweet about the dirty gubernatorial campaign, respected UVA political analyst Dr. Larry Sabato warned that if we think it is bad now, "Wait til you see what the VA campaigns & their "independent" allies have planned for fall."
One of the most active groups is the liberal American Bridge. American Bridge was founded by progessive activist David Brock, known best for his watchdog web site Media Matters, which tracks conservative leaning press reports.
American Bridge has had a prolific presence in this campaign already, regularly posting slick web videos, pushing out press releases and even creating special web sites designed to address specific issues related to the campaign. NBC12 was given a sneek peak at a one of those new website, which launches this morning, designed to link Cuccinelli to his controversial new running mate, Bishop E.W. Jackson, the Republican nominee for Lt. Governor.
The web site serves as an online quiz which asks the reader to pick which candidate is connected to which controversial position. SPOILER ALERT: both of them are connected to all of the potential choices.
The site serves two purposes, one to paint Cuccinelli as an arch conservative who will pursue an ideological agenda, the other to tie him to Jackson whose introduction to the statewide ticket has been one rocked by his controversial past statements.
Cuccinelli has walked a delicate tight rope when it comes to his connection to Jackson. He has made it clear that Jackson will run his own campaign and should be judged independently, but has not rejected or for that matter embraced any of Jackson's past statements. Democrats were quick to push around a Washington Post story where Jackson claimed Cuccinelli suggested he run for Lt. Governor.
“Ken Cuccinelli may be trying to distance himself from E.W. Jackson, but Jackson is right when he says the ticket is ‘more homogeneous than almost any ticket ever in the history of Virginia,’” said Chris Harris, American Bridge communications director. “Attempting to differentiate between the positions of Cuccinelli and Jackson is an exercise in futility.”
Cuccinelli spokesperson Anna Nix told the Post that Jackson's memory of that particular meeting may not quite what he suggests.
“Ken asked why the Senate and if he ever thought to run for anything else — like maybe Lieutenant Governor? E.W. may have misconstrued that as a direct ask,” Nix said in an e-mail to the Post. Jackson had asked to meet with Cuccinelli to discuss a run for U.S. Senate. Something Jackson still attempted and was unsuccessful in a GOP primary.
American Bridge's conservative counterpart is the PAC America Rising. The group run by veteran GOP campaign hands Matt Rhoades, Joe Pounder and Tim Miller. It pounces on issues and puts out information quickly on their tumblr page. They also conduct investigations of their own. In the Virginia governor's race America Rising has spent a lot of time focusing on McAuliffe's Greentech car company and his past as DNC chair.
Recently they jumped on a AP column by Bob Lewis, where Lewis put into perspective McAuliffe's role in the historic transportation compromise. The McAuliffe campaign has worked to highlight the candidate's behind the scenes role in helping to get the transportation funding deal done. They even produced a campaign commercial around that role. Lewis said McAuliffe didn't "harm" the process, but in a devastating analysis, Lewis said "to imply a role much beyond that is like hailing a team mascot for a decisive buzzer-beating 3-point basket."
Over the next few months, expect this quick hitting back and forth to continue. It will happen at a pace that will difficult to keep up with. As the banter over the campaign heats up, it will take even more creativity and even tougher barbs to rise about the fray.
Remember American Bridge and America Rising. While their names are very similar their goals couldn't be more different. The team that is more effective could play a major role in who Virginia elects as its next governor.