June 6, 2013

Michelle Obama is heading to Virginia this evening, to speak in support of Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate in the commonwealth’s widely watched gubernatorial race.

This election is more important than it looks. Remember, the 2009 race in Virginia was something of a preview for the Congressional elections of 2010. Barack Obama won the state by more than four points the previous year — making him the first Democrat to do so since 1964 — but he couldn’t transfer the energy of his supporters to the Democratic nominee, state Senator Creigh Deeds. The result was a win for the Republican candidate, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who took advantage of low-turnout and anti-Obama discontent to claim a 19-point victory over Deeds. That was a harbinger of what happened in the 2010 midterm elections.

Ken Cuccinelli doesn’t have the polish of McDonnell, and isn’t as plausibly moderate as the current governor. Whereas McDonnell came across as a center-right technocrat — the kind of candidates Virginians tend to rally behind (see: Mark Warner) — Cuccinelli’s national reputation is build on his extremism and fealty to Tea Party ideology. It’s why he holds such low favorability ratings with Virginia voters: according to the most recent survey from robofirm Public Policy Polling, forty-four percent of Virginians have an unfavorable opinion of the Attorney General, and among independents — the crucial demographic in Virginia — that number rises to 51 percent. Only 25 percent of independents have a favorable opinion of Cuccinelli, for a net unfavorable rating of 26 percent.

But here’s the thing. Given the extremely low turnout of gubernatorial elections — the drop-off between 2008 and 2009 was close to fifty percent — Cuccinelli doesn’t have to be popular with Virginia voters to win, he just needs his supporters to come out in droves. Which isn’t a hard task. Not only is he the favorite of conservative Virginians, but the voters most likely to support Republicans — older whites — predominate in the commonwealth’s off-year elections.

For Dem challenger Terry McAuliffe to win, he needs to match enthusiasm with enthusiasm. And as National Journal reports, recreating the turnout of Barack Obama’s operation has been the key project in the McAuliffe camp:

The McAuliffe campaign boasts top field coordinators from the Obama campaign in North Carolina and Wisconsin as well as the president’s digital advertising and direct mail consultants. It has a database with information gleaned from the Obama campaign about voters’ preferences in the 2012 election and top issues. The campaign can also guide supporters who use Facebook to share information with friends who are likely to be persuaded to vote for McAuliffe.

“Many of the volunteers and neighborhood leaders who made the Obama field effort a success stayed engaged in Virginia and are the basis of Terry’s grassroots campaign in 2013,” said McAuliffe spokesman Brennan Bilberry. “Because they have experience and networks built throughout 2012, Terry’s volunteer-driven organization is uniquely suited to explain the stakes in this election.”

Compared to Deeds in 2009 — who had few offices, few volunteers, and little cash (McAuliffe has consistently outraised Cuccinelli) — this is a huge improvement. But given how much the playing field tilts in favor of Republicans, it might not be enough.

With that said, if McAuliffe can generate enthusiasm among core Democratic voters—African Americans, Latinos, women and young people — and if he can bring them to the polls, then he stands a strong chance of winning. Moreover, Democrats will have better odds of taking the lieutenant governorship — and keeping the highly controversial E.W. Jackson out of Richmond —and the attorney generalship, offices that have been springboards to future gubernatorial runs.

More broadly, if McAuliffe can replicate Obama’s strategy, then it might be possible for other candidates in contested races across the country to do the same. In other words, Virginia has become the place where Democrats can use the lessons learned from 2010 and 2012 in test runs for next year. And if they’re successful, 2014 might be less painful for Democrats than we expect.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.