November 6, 2013
Virginia Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Virginia Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

Democrat Terry McAuliffe squeaked out a closer than expected victory in the Virginia governor’s race last night, edging Republican Ken Cuccinelli by two points. Republicans such as Cuccinell, Marco Rubio, and RNC chair Reince Priebus had repeatedly cast the race as a “referendum on Obamacare.”

Not so much.

Indeed, it’s hard to look at last night’s results as a definitive declaration of public opinion on Obamacare either way — whether for or against. The only conclusion I think you can begin to draw from the results is that an absolutist position against the law doesn’t command sufficient support to win statewide in Virginia, a state that is widely seen by observers as a key indicator of national demographic and political trends. The law is probably still on probation with many voters, but the law’s most ardent foes are wrong — they just don’t represent a majority or mainstream position.

According to the exit polls, only 27 percent of Virginia voters saw the health law as the top issue, and among them, only a bare plurality (49-45) supported Cuccinelli. Far more (45 percent) named the economy.

It’s true 53 percent in the exit polling oppose Obamacare, versus 46 percent who support it. But as we’ve seen, the more fine grained national polling has steadily revealed a small but non-trivial percentage in the opposing camp who disapproves because it doesn’t go far enough, meaning the GOP position is a minority one. (Some pundits simply refuse to entertain these nuances of public opinion, but they exist.) National polls also show that disapproval, while real, doesn’t translate into support for getting rid of the law entirely, and that majorities want to give it a chance.

Something approximating this may have been on display in Virginia, where Cuccinelli supported repeal and was slow to distance himself from the national GOP’s push to defund the law. Of those who oppose the law, 11 percent of voters peeled off and voted for McAuliffe. We can’t know for sure the role the law played in determining the votes of that 11 percent, but it’s possible this sentiment expressed by an independent who backed McAuliffe was more widespread:

“Cuccinelli is beyond conservative,” said [Daniel] Teddla, an independent. “He is too extreme.” He said he voted not so much for McAuliffe as against Republican attitudes toward women’s health and the Affordable Care Act. “Obamacare isn’t perfect, but they are not working to make it better. They are just totally against it.”

The problem is that, because the race was closer than expected, foes of the law are already concluding that last night’s results were vindication for them:

Over the past two weeks, as Cuccinelli framed the election as a referendum on Obamacare, momentum shifted in his favor, said his campaign strategist, Chris LaCivita, who criticized the national Republican Party for giving up on its Virginia candidate too soon and paring back on funding over the past month. “There are a lot of questions people are going to be asking and that is, was leaving Cuccinelli alone in the first week of October a smart move?” LaCivita said. “We were on our own.”

It’s certainly possible rollout problems shifted the outcome a bit; even some Virginia Dems believe this. But the unabashedly pro-Obamacare candidate still won the race. This, even though an unresolved Obamacare policy question — whether the state should opt in to the Medicaid expansion — was a key issue in yesterday’s election, one that McAuliffe frequently cited, and even though the voting occurred at precisely the moment when the crush of anti-Obamacare press was about as bad as it can get.

If we must draw a conclusion about Obamacare here, it probably should be that scorched earth opposition to it isn’t nearly as widespread or fervent as its foes claim. But many of its most ardent opponents are impervious to the realities of public opinion — inside their bubble, the American people supported the government shutdown. If a leading cause of the internal GOP tension is a deep rift over whether to continue adopting a Total War posture against the law, the closeness of yesterday’s results will probably embolden the Total War camp and perpetuate these divisions.

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* OBAMA TO CLAIM MOMENTUM FOR MEDICAID EXPANSION: President Obama is set to travel to Dallas today to pressure Republican governors to opt in to the Medicaid expansion that’s part of the Affordable Care Act. You can expect Obama and other Dems to seize on yesterday’s results as vindication for the expansion.

* “A REFERENDUM ON OBAMACARE”: Relatedly, Americans United for Change is out with a new web video recapping footage of Republicans flatly declaring that the Virginia outcome will be a “referendum on Obamacare,” and making the case that it really was a referendum on Obamacare — in its favor.

As noted above, I don’t see how you can reach a definitive conclusion either way. But the video is worth watching for a recap of the confidence Republicans projected that the health law would result in a glorious GOP triumph.

* “COALITION OF THE ASCENDANT” LIFTED McAULIFFE: Here’s what the exit polls show:

McAuliffe won majorities among women, African Americans, moderates, college graduates, people who said they were affected by the shutdown, and both low-income and high-income voters, according to exit polling data. Cuccinelli won among white men, gun owners, people who believe abortion should be illegal and middle-income voters.

This is partly Ron Brownstein’s “coalition of the ascendant” on display – millennials, minorities, and college educated whites, especially women – and last night’s results may affirm the increasing sense that the Democratic coalition of the future rests heavily on these groups.

* MCAULIFFE WIN FUELED BY THE “RISING AMERICAN ELECTORATE”: Dem pollster Stan Greenberg put out a memo on last night’s results that reached this conclusion about the electorate that lifted McAuliffe to victory:

By a landslide 42 points, unmarried women favored Democrat Terry McAuliffe…McAuliffe won big among unmarried women and other members of the Rising American Electorate (RAE) — made up of people of color, unmarried women, and youth aged 18-29, the exit polls show….strong RAE support helped reelect President Obama in 2012. Since then, Republicans have been issuing guidance on appealing to a broader coalition of voters, including members of the RAE.

This is similar to the coalition of the ascendant, but Greenberg tends to place a greater emphasis on unmarried women than on college educated women.

* REALITY CHECK OF THE DAY: Nate Cohn doesn’t think there’s any evidence that the closeness of the race was necessarily driven by Obamacare. But he concludes:

Virginia was supposedly ground zero for the government shutdown, the shutdown that supposedly stirred a Democratic wave capable of excising Republicans from safely conservative districts. But McAuliffe couldn’t win by a wide margin in all but ideal conditions. Most significantly, McAuliffe made few, if any, inroads into GOP territory. In comparison, Tim Kaine won significant chunks of Republican-leaning terrain in 2005. That’s exactly what Democrats need to win back the House, and if a perfect storm couldn’t produce those gains, then there’s plenty of cause to question whether Democrats can retake the ground necessary to win the House in twelve months.

Of course, McAuliffe was a very flawed candidate, too, but point taken.

* DEMS REMAIN ANXIOUS ABOUT OBAMACARE: Roll Call reports that some Democrats are approaching a “crisis of confidence” about Obamacare, in the words of Senator Barbara Mikulski:

The White House now is in a race to fix the problems before demands within the  Democratic Party for legislative fixes become overwhelming — either in the form of a proposal by Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia for a one-year delay in the individual mandate or Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s new proposal to keep grandfathered plans online instead of generating more cancellation notices.

Some on the Twitters are actually citing last night’s Virginia results and wondering whether they will make Dems more anxious about Obamacare. It’s hard to see why this would be the case, but again: All that matters in the long run is whether the policy works. Public anxiety from skittish Democrats, while a political problem for the White House, is just not that relevant.

* A SWEEP FOR DEMS IN VIRGINIA? According to the latest tally, Democrat Mark Herring held a 541-vote lead over Republican Mark Obenshain in the race for Attorney General. A recount is expected, but a clean sweep for Dems in this key presidential state — they also won the race for Lieutenant Governor — will likely touch off major recriminations among Republicans.

* THE NEXT BIG RACE: Michael Tomasky brings us a memo from the Alison Lundergan Grimes camp arguing that Dems have a good shot at unseating Mitch McConnell. Tomasky:

A year from now, this will probably be one of the hottest races in the country, maybe the hottest. It’s very much worth checking in on between now and then.

Noted! Expect a truly huge surge of national money into this one.

* AND LAST NIGHT WAS VINDICATION FOR THE TEA PARTY? This Tweet, from observer Larry Sabato, sums up what may be the emerging narrative:

Nationally, something for everyone. Mod Rs got Christie, Ds got McAuliffe (+ ticket sweep?), Tea Party got closing Cuccinelli.

Of course, “closing Cuccinelli” still lost. But the Tea Partyers must be given something to feel good about, apparently.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.