Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe (D), left, and Ken Cuccinelli II (R) at a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Unless he turns things around dramatically in less than four weeks, Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II will lose the Virginia governor’s race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe has been ahead in every single public poll since July. In the two polls taken exclusively after the shutdown, he is down 10 points and 9 points, respectively.

In many ways, Cuccinelli personifies the right wing’s ideal candidate. He’s a committed foe of Obamacare, leading the states’ legal challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. He is a rigid and staunch opponent of abortion and gay marriage. His rhetoric is fiery, and he is as hard-edge a politician on the state level as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — who campaigned for him — is on the national scene.

But it turns out his unfavorables are sky high, in large part because he does terribly with women, suburban voters, minorities and independents. The Christopher Newport University poll, for example, finds:

The keys to McAuliffe’s lead appear to be his 12% advantage among female voters (50% to 38%) and his 16% advantage among independents (45% to 29 %). Additionally, McAuliffe leads in Northern Virginia by 28% and the Richmond metro area by 7%, and is tied with Cuccinelli in Southwest and Southside Virginia – a traditional Republican stronghold, 43% to 44%. . . . In addition to trailing McAuliffe among female voters, Cuccinelli is losing Republican voters who self-describe as more concerned about the business climate.

The contrast is huge between Cuccinelli and current Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who won in highly populated northern counties, won women voters by 8 points and cleaned up with independent voters (66 percent to 33 percent). It is far from impossible to win a statewide race in a trending-purple state as a conservative, pro-life Republican (McDonnell is both). It is, however, very hard to see that a strident conservative who made a name for himself on social issues and playing to the national Republican base can do so. Cuccinelli is beloved by the GOP base, but he may not be electable in a state that has had GOP governors. (It is noteworthy that he set up a convention with 5,000 die-hard activists rather than compete in a primary against the much more moderate lieutenant governor.)

And therein should be a lesson for Republicans around the country in 2014 and 2016. The darling of the right-wing base may not sell well among critical constituencies and in states that were in play in 2008 and 2012. The factors that endear right-wing candidates to GOP national gatherings are the very ones who, in the real world, have limited currency — fiery rhetoric, dogmatic views and fidelity to social issues at the expense of appearing tolerant.

GOP defenders of that brand of conservatism say Cuccinelli ran a bad race. That, however, simply isn’t true. He committed no huge gaffes, he dealt with the Star Scientific gift scandal and he performed well in debates. He was himself, unvarnished and unapologetic.

Virginia is winnable territory for the GOP, but that doesn’t mean any Republican can win. Much more than the issues (on paper, Cuccinelli departs very little from McDonnell’s views), it is the persona, tone and emphasis that should concern Republicans.

Democrat-turned-Republican Artur Davis (who was courted by some Virginians to run for statewide office) does not mince words. Writing on the shutdown and continuing-resolution histrionics in D.C., he observes (in a piece well-worth reading in full):

Those of us on the right who envision conservatism as a brand of public policy and not an enemy of the concept, who conceive that a more cohesive society is a legitimate conservative mission, and don’t confuse the left’s newest ill conceived initiatives with the fading hours before a socialist midnight, could and should have fought harder to keep the right from becoming radicalized. Instead, we soft-pedaled our own sense of responsibility. We bargained on absorbing a hard-right insurgency when we should have been looking harder at its assumptions, and its radicalism. . . .

[W]e weren’t quick enough to insist to the movement-minded among us that a political party is at its core not a movement: a party exists to mobilize to win campaigns and in a fractured electorate, winning requires being coalitional rather than ideologically pristine. We developed a weakness for rewarding provocateurs with the spotlight, as if unseriousness were not a ticket to perpetual minority party status.

That may seem even more compelling should Cuccinelli lose an entirely winnable race against a highly flawed opponent. Maybe it is time for mainstream conservatives to, as Davis puts it,  reject “cramped, defensive version of the right that is now what most voters imagine when they hear the term ‘conservative’ and that has returned the Republican Party to its weakest state since late 2008.”

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.