American politics is replete with examples of candidates seizing opportunities in states in which they have not resided for nearly as long as McAuliffe has lived in Virginia. Robert F. Kennedy, searching for a state to launch his political career after serving as attorney general, captured a U.S. Senate seat in 1965 in New York. Thirty-five years later, Illinois-born Hillary Rodham Clinton became New York’s junior senator. Elizabeth Dole’s opponents called her a carpetbagger when she returned to her native North Carolina to run for the Senate in 2002.
There are also examples of successful politicians who had no government experience before taking office. Ronald Reagan was an actor before becoming California’s governor. Michael R. Bloomberg was a business tycoon before running for mayor of New York. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler before becoming a mayor in Minnesota and then governor.
“There are so many different paths you can take to the executive mansion,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. “I don’t believe there is any particular path that is a more reliable predictor of success.”
In Virginia for five decades, Harry F. Byrd Sr. — a conservative Democrat who served as governor and a senator — ruled state politics, hand-picking those who ascended into office. To get elected, “you had to be one of us: speak with a Virginia accent and have the right political beliefs,” said Peter Wallenstein, a Virginia Tech history professor. “You had to be a white male, and you had to come from the elite.”
Since Byrd’s death, voters have chosen governors born outside Virginia, including Chuck Robb (Arizona). The current governor was born in Philadelphia. Cuccinelli was born in New Jersey. His parents moved to Virginia a year later.
“There is this new political reality that cuts the requirements that you have lineage that goes back generations in Virginia and have been properly groomed through the system,” Wallenstein said. “The new reality is a far more open universe.”
Virginia’s shifting demographics have altered the state’s politics, the most dramatic evidence being that a majority of voters supported a Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 for the first time in 44 years.
Over the past decade, a preponderance of the state’s new residents — just over 75 percent — have been minorities. The state’s Hispanic population grew by more than 90 percent during that period and now accounts for more than 7 percent of residents.