November 5, 2013

TERRY McAULIFFE’S election Tuesday as Virginia’s next governor marked a personal triumph for a man who was trounced in a party primary for the position four years ago, as well as a watershed moment for Democrats.

Yet their enthusiasm for victories at the top of the ticket — state Sen. Ralph Northam, another Democrat, handily won his race for lieutenant governor — is unmatched by a similar passion for Mr. McAuliffe himself. With his checkered past, lack of experience in elected office and impressionistic grasp of the mechanics of state government, he is regarded by his party’s stalwarts much as he is regarded by many Virginians — a scandal-prone outsider with a lot to learn.

The good news is that Mr. McAuliffe, following his defeat in 2009, showed the adaptability and stamina to rebound and mount what amounted to a four-year campaign. That it was relatively gaffe-free suggests that, despite his reputation for fast-talking improvisation, Mr. McAuliffe may also possess a degree of discipline for which he has not been celebrated to date.

His victory was narrower than expected. No doubt, he was lucky that Republicans showed poor judgment in nominating Ken Cuccinelli II as his opponent. Mr. Cuccinelli, a tea party hero who has been one of the most divisive figures in Richmond for a decade, was the wrong candidate for a moderate swing state like Virginia.

Nonetheless, credit Mr. McAuliffe with crafting the right message. In a state heavily dependent on federal spending, and facing stiff economic headwinds as that spending contracts, Mr. McAuliffe argued persuasively that he would market the commonwealth aggressively and put jobs first. Despite Mr. Cuccinelli’s election-year conversion, nothing in his record as a conservative culture warrior credibly suggested that he would make Virginia’s economic welfare a priority.

Mr. McAuliffe’s success in business and politics owes more to energy, geniality and a gift for playing the angles than to mastery of detail. He will have to show he is fully engaged in the business of managing a state government with 117,000 employees and an $18 billion annual budget. And he will have to get up to speed quickly enough to put his mark on a biennial budget proposal that will be submitted to the legislature early next year.

Mr. McAuliffe, with his prolific skills as a fundraiser, was able to finance a solid campaign that managed to define Mr. Cuccinelli early, and unflatteringly. Republicans are complaining bitterly about that, blithely accusing the Democrats of running a dirty race.

Yet even without the Democrats’ enormous fundraising advantage, Virginians would have discovered who Mr. Cuccinelli is — and has been during 11 years of government service. It is precisely that record in office that explains why Republicans were so divided during the course of the campaign. As a state senator and, for the past four years, attorney general, Mr. Cuccinelli was a crusader against illegal immigrants, homosexuals, abortion and higher taxes. That may have suited Virginia in an earlier era. It didn’t suit the Virginia of 2013.