McAuliffe opens up double-digit lead over Cuccinelli in Virginia governor’s race

Democrat Terry McAuliffe has opened a double-digit lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli II in the race for Virginia governor, in a new poll capturing increasing dissatisfaction among voters with Cuccinelli’s party and his conservative views.

According to a new Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll, McAuliffe tops Cuccinelli 51 percent to 39 percent among likely voters in the Nov. 5 election. McAuliffe led by eight percentage points in a poll taken last month. Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who has capitalized on voter unrest with the two major-party candidates, is at 8 percent, according to the new poll.

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The margin between the two major-party candidates is driven by a huge gender gap. Among men, the two candidates are running even, with Cuccinelli at 45 percent and McAuliffe at 44 percent. But among women, Cuccinelli trails by 24 points — 58 percent to 34 percent.

McAuliffe’s substantial lead puts him in a position to break a long pattern in Virginia gubernatorial races. In the nine most recent elections, the party holding the White House has lost the governor’s race. Cuccinelli’s weaknesses, more than McAuliffe’s strengths, put that streak in jeopardy, according to one question in the poll.

Among those supporting the Democrat, 64 percent say they are voting against Cuccinelli rather than for McAuliffe. Meanwhile, among the attorney general’s supporters, 50 percent say they are casting a positive vote for the candidate while 44 percent say they are voting against McAuliffe, a businessman who is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

McAuliffe’s strong position also could boost Democrats’ chances of sweeping statewide offices for the first time in a quarter-century — and of making substantial gains in the GOP-dominated House of Delegates. According to the poll, the race for lieutenant governor is equally lopsided for the Democrat, while the Democratic candidate for attorney general is just three points ahead of the Republican — within the margin of error.

Cuccinelli’s image has deteriorated consistently during the campaign, damaged by not only perceptions of his conservatism but also a backlash against the recent partial shutdown of the federal government, for which a majority of voters blame Republicans in Congress. The gift scandal that has engulfed Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) also has contributed to Cuccinelli’s problems.

McAuliffe, with superior financial resources, has pummeled Cuccinelli, particularly on social issues, including abortion and gay rights. Outside groups working on behalf of McAuliffe have added to the onslaught. The new poll underscores the severity of the damage that McAuliffe’s campaign has inflicted with a strategy based more on tearing his opponent down than on offering a clear vision of the kind of governor he would be.

McAuliffe, whom former vice president Al Gore once called “the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe,” has had a huge cash advantage over Cuccinelli. The Democrat has pulled in more than $34 million, $8.1 million of it between Oct. 1 and Oct. 23. Cuccinelli has raised just under $20 million, $2.9 million of it this month. The numbers were published Monday by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Even Republicans conceded the damage done. “Unfortunately, the vicious and blatantly false attacks against Ken Cuccinelli, fueled with out-of-state money and played constantly on TV, have taken their toll,” wrote Jay McConville, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, in an e-mail sent Monday to supporters.

In the poll, more than half of the likely electorate (54 percent) say Cuccinelli’s views on most issues are too conservative, while only 36 percent say his views are “just about right.” McAuliffe’s ideology, in contrast, is viewed as about right by 50 percent of likely voters, while 40 percent say he is too liberal.

A week before the election, 58 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable view of Cuccinelli, while 41 percent view him favorably. Negative perceptions have jumped six points in a month. In contrast, 53 percent of likely voters view McAuliffe favorably, with 44 percent holding an unfavorable impression. The Democrat’s numbers have held steady over the past month.

Rebecca Fisher, 64, of Toms Brook was among those who said theirs would be a hold-your-nose vote. “I am not a fan of Terry McAuliffe. I think he’s kind of a lightweight,” said Fisher, a retired elder-care executive who nevertheless plans to push the button for the Democrat. “I would have preferred a stronger candidate, but if he’s the only Democrat, he gets my vote. . . . The devil himself would be better on women’s issues than Ken Cuccinelli.”

Cuccinelli’s problems have been compounded by the fallout from the government shutdown. The Republican Party’s image has reached record lows in several national polls, and the new survey of Virginia voters confirms those trends.

The survey found that 65 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable view of the national Republican Party and 57 percent look unfavorably on the Virginia GOP. Meanwhile, bare majorities of voters say they see both the national and Virginia Democratic Party favorably.

There has been a rapid deterioration in the national Republican Party’s image among Virginians. In a May survey, the negative views of the national GOP outnumbered the positive ones by 18 percentage points. Today, that margin has expanded to 33 points.

Voters in Virginia see both candidates as running highly negative campaigns. About three in five voters said McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have run mostly negative campaigns. That is a striking change from the judgments about the two previous winning candidates in gubernatorial campaigns. Almost three in five Virginians viewed the campaigns of McDonnell and now-Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D) as mostly positive in polls taken before their elections.

But putting those assessments aside, McAuliffe is now seen as more capable of dealing with some of the major issues the next governor will confront.

Voters say they trust McAuliffe more on jobs and the economy, areas in which Republicans traditionally have had the edge. They also have more faith in McAuliffe when it comes to health care, despite the dysfunctional rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act this month.

Cuccinelli, who was the first attorney general to file a lawsuit against the health-care law, known informally as “Obamacare,” should have been well positioned to exploit those problems, particularly since McAuliffe wants to extend the program’s reach in Virginia with Medicaid expansion. But the federal shutdown meant to derail the health-care law managed to overshadow its glitch-plagued debut, blunting one of Cuccinelli’s most powerful lines of attack.

The theme Cuccinelli has pushed longest and hardest throughout the campaign — that McAuliffe is an ethically challenged dealmaker — seems to have fallen flat with voters. Cuccinelli’s campaign and independent news organizations have chronicled McAuliffe’s long history of questionable business and political ventures, including co-founding an electric car company that left Virginia feeling jilted for Mississippi, produced few jobs or cars, and is the subject to two ongoing federal investigations. This month came revelations that McAuliffe had invested in an insurance annuity scheme that allowed him to profit from the death of a terminally ill stranger.

But McAuliffe has gained a modest edge over Cuccinelli in being seen as honest and trustworthy since last month.

Allison O’Connor, 41, of Fairfax County, an educator in the George Mason University library, likes McAuliffe primarily because he is not Cuccinelli.

“I am so averse to Ken Cuccinelli that even though I don’t know much about the Democratic candidate, that’s who I am voting for,” she said.

Michael Wilson, 72, of Clarke County is a self-employed blacksmith who said he’s voting for Cuccinelli mostly because he doesn’t like McAuliffe.

“I really don’t like McAuliffe — he’s the quintessence of everything that is wrong with politics in America today,” said Wilson, who has lived in Virginia since 1993. “I followed this guy for years — he’s just a foul ball. There’s nothing good about this man that would make him a good leader for anything.”

More than a third of registered voters polled say they were inconvenienced by the shutdown, compared with 22 percent in a national Post-ABC poll released last week. More than eight in 10 disapprove of the shutdown, and 51 percent blame the Republicans in Congress for it. Three in 10 say they blame President Obama. Those who had negative views or experiences with the shutdown support McAuliffe over Cuccinelli by wide margins. Some 55 percent say the shutdown is very important in their vote, and those voters say they back McAuliffe by more than 2 to 1 over Cuccinelli.

Virginia Republicans have been hoping that the smaller electorate that typically turns out for the state’s off-year gubernatorial contest would benefit Cuccinelli, as it did when McDonnell won in a landslide in 2009, a year after Virginia helped put Obama in the White House. But the poll finds McAuliffe with a substantial lead across a variety of high- and low-turnout scenarios. Among all registered voters, McAuliffe’s supporters are slightly more apt to say they are “absolutely certain” they will go to the polls than Cuccinelli’s.

The Post/Abt SRBI poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 24-27 among a random sample of 762 likely voters in the Virginia gubernatorial election, including users of both land-line and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error for results among likely voters is 4.5 percentage points.

Dan Balz, Scott Clement, Leah Binkovitz and Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.

 
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