It was not a headline the Ken Cuccinelli for Governor campaign wanted to see just seven weeks before Election Day: "Trailing McAuliffe, Cuccinelli changes staff, focus." That was what topped a story in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
Several recent polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe edging ahead and one prominent pundit moved the race from a "toss-up" to "leans Democratic."
But a Cuccinelli campaign insider says there has been no staff shake-up, only a shifting of responsibilities.
First Read — DMV
A place for insight, analysis and exclusives on the people who shape politics in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
"I come from corporate world," said Cuccinelli campaign finance committee co-chair Pete Snyder. "When you say ‘shakeup,’ somebody lost their job. In this case, people got more responsibility, and I think, as a co-finance chair, I think we need to make sure that all of our volunteers, all of our operatives and all of our staff are packed to the gills. It's all hands on deck for the next 52 days."
Democrats are seizing on the staff reorganizing as a sign that the Cuccinelli campaign is worried. Fairfax County Delegate Scott Surovell is tasked with helping other Democratic lawmakers win seats in the Virginia House and says polling he's seen also shows McAuliffe moving ahead. Surovell believes Gov. Bob McDonnell’s and Cuccinelli's continuing troubles over past gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams have taken a toll. McDonnell is the subject of a federal investigation. A Richmond prosecutor has cleared Cuccinelli of wrong doing, but this week, the Republican confirmed that he had spoken to federal investigators several months ago.
"These are things that voters can see and understand and connect the dots on, and they have really undermined Ken Cuccinelli's message that he's some kind of ideological, pure crusader that's not subject to special interests," said Surovell.
Earlier in the week, Cuccinelli attempted to put the gift controversy to rest, delivering a video message to supporters that he was donating $18,000, the value of the gifts he received from Williams, to a Richmond charity. Said Cuccinelli in the video, "For those who've been disappointed in this situation or how I've handled it, I apologize. It's been a humbling set of lessons for me."
Cuccinelli's campaign has kept part of its focus on McAuliffe's past business practices, hammering him in a series of ads. Cuccinelli aides also point to McAuliffe’s refusal to return a $2,500 political contribution given to him years ago by D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson. Thompson is a central figure in a wide-ranging campaign finance scandal in the District of Columbia. "He has so far refused to give back the money from that shady donor. Our Sen. Tim Kaine gave it back," said Snyder. "Why is there always a cloud around everything Terry McAuliffe does?"
Democrat Surovell has a different view. "This was a contribution in a race four years ago,” he said. “To focus on that today seems desperate."
Cuccinelli is starting next week with some high profile political help. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will appear with Cuccinell in Richmond at a fundraiser that's now been opened to the media. On Tuesday, Cuccinelli will have conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin at his side for a rally in Sterling.