Republican Ken Cuccinelli came out swinging in a University of Richmond candidate forum Thursday evening with Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a bid to eat into McAuliffe's lead less than four weeks from Election Day. Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis did not take part.
The conservative attorney general opened by pushing back against the public perception that Republicans are more to blame than Democrats in shutting down parts of the federal government in a bid to defund the new health reform law. He noted that McAuliffe once warned that he would not sign a budget that didn't expand Medicaid under the new health law. He said that action could shut down state government funding.
McAuliffe, appearing second, opened by renewing efforts to tie Cuccinelli to Congressional Republicans including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the Republican Senate lightning rod for conditioning approval of a new budget on defunding the Affordable Care Act.
"I wouldn't even be in the same room with Ted Cruz with the damage he has brought to so many Virginia families, and if I'd gone to the room, I'd tell him to stop using a government shutdown as an ideological bargaining chip,'' McAuliffe said.
A Quinnipiac University poll Thursday showed McAuliffe expanding his lead over Cuccinelli from 3 percentage points to 8.
Cuccinelli continued trying to chip away at McAuliffe's fiscal rationale for expanding Medicaid for as many as 400,000 working poor, arguing that Virginia would lose out on a windfall in support from the federal government, which would pay the full cost of expansion for three years, then 90 percent after that.
Cuccinelli said without substantial reform, expanding the federal-state partnership that helps pay health care bills for the blind, needy, elderly, disabled and low-income households with children is expensive and inefficient.
"I don't believe it's fiscally responsible to jump into Medicaid expansion without the federal government turning control of the program over to us,'' he said.
He also disputes that the federal government will live up to its funding promise given deepening debt now topping $17 trillion. Cuccinelli said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., assured him that Medicaid expansion prescribed under the Democratic-passed 2010 affordable care act is not sustainable.
Ryan, he said, "told me, 'I don't care if it's the Democrats in charge or the Republicans, we don't have the money,'' Cuccinelli said.
He also blasted McAuliffe for investing with a Rhode Island estate lawyer now jailed on federal wire fraud and conspiracy charge for selling annuities on terminally ill people that paid death benefits when those people died.
"Terry McAuliffe was investing in insurance instruments that banked on terminally ill people dying. You can't make this stuff up,'' Cuccinelli said.
McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin said Wednesday that the candidate was a "passive investor'' with Joseph Caramadre in Rhode Island and ``had no idea about the allegations against'' Caramadre. He also said the campaign and McAuliffe also gave thousands of dollars to the American Cancer Society.
McAuliffe at the forum tried to further his narrative that Cuccinelli has actively advanced extreme ideological positions as a state senator and the past four years as attorney general, pushing to limit abortion rights, opposing efforts to protect gays from discrimination and what he called a "witch hunt'' investigation into the climate change research that scientist Michael Mann conducted at the University of Virginia.
"We've gone through a tough couple of years, let's not kid ourselves. Unfortunately, we've become a laughing stock on late-night comedy shows because of what's going on in Richmond,'' he said, referring to widely lampooned legislation in 2012 that would have compelled women to undergo vaginally invasive ultrasound exams before having abortions.
He said his first executive order as governor would ban sexual discrimination in the state government workforce. He promised to veto "personhood legislation'' that outlaws some forms of early-term abortion. And he again said he would issue a "guidance document'' as the state's chief executive that prevents more abortion clinics from closing because of a 2-year-old state law that holds free-standing women's clinics that perform a certain number of abortions to the same architectural standards as newly constructed hospitals.
Cuccinelli said guidance documents "a non-existent legal instrument'' or "legal pixie dust,'' and said that McAuliffe could never trump statutory law with executive directives.
"You shouldn't elect a governor who is running for office saying, 'Don't worry, I won't enforce the law,''' Cuccinelli told reporters after the forum.