Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe: Virginia governor’s race holds the eyes of the nation

March 28, 2013

You might call it the off-year comeuppance: In every one of Virginia’s past nine gubernatorial contests, the Old Dominion has rejected the party of the president elected only a year before.

Whether that pattern holds true in 2013 could depend on how well Democrats and Republicans learned the lessons of 2012. The contest will also be watched closely for signs of where things might be headed nationally in 2014’s midterm elections.

At least as important is which of the two all-but-certain nominees — Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe — does a better job of making the other unacceptable to voters. Both sides expect the race to be one of the most vicious the state has seen.

Virginia and New Jersey have long occupied a special place on the political calendar, because they are the only states to pick their governors so soon after a presidential contest.

But with New Jersey’s Chris Christie (R) cruising to a second term, Virginia alone holds any suspense this year. Its significance has been magnified by the fact that in the Barack Obama era, Virginia has gone from being reliably red in national elections to the truest battleground — supplanting Ohio as the state whose results most closely mirror those of the country.

Virginia’s gubernatorial contest also reflects the volatile state of politics nationally, where partisanship runs strong, but so does the desire for solutions to serious problems.

For instance, McAuliffe has wholeheartedly gotten behind the transportation funding initiative that is outgoing Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s signature achievement.

Cuccinelli, meanwhile, decried the bill as imposing a “massive tax increase,” and he even questioned its constitutionality, prompting McDonnell (R) to propose revisions.

Both candidates have serious vulnerabilities.

At a moment when the national Republican Party is trying to smooth its edges and broaden its appeal, its Virginia nominee will be an unapologetic tea party favorite who leans hard right on social and fiscal issues.

Cuccinelli is “almost a test case of the argument that Republicans win when they don’t trim their beliefs,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired political science professor and a partner in the Richmond public-service consulting firm DecideSmart.

And in an off year, when turnout tends to be low and organization matters, the Democratic contender is someone who has never held office, is largely unknown to Virginia voters and who flopped when he ran four years ago.

The preternaturally exuberant McAuliffe may have been beaten, but he never stopped running. “I got up the next day,” he said. “I dusted myself off, and I have been all over the commonwealth listening to folks, getting ideas of how we could do things better, what we should be doing.” (Cuccinelli declined a request for an interview.)

If the electorate looks like it usually does in an odd-numbered year, with one-third fewer voters and a stronger GOP tilt, Cuccinelli may hold the edge.

McAuliffe’s best chance of breaking the off-year curse is reviving and replicating the coalition that delivered the state to Obama last year. That would require boosting turnout among Hispanics, African Americans, young people and unmarried women younger than 50, all of whom tend to sit out elections when there is no presidential race.

Given the extraordinary sophistication and efficiency of Obama’s Virginia turnout operation last year, “I have to believe that [Democrats] have learned how to motivate their electorate in a midterm election,” said Chris LaCivita, Cuccinelli’s top campaign strategist.

The flat-footed operation of the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, by contrast, could inform a treatise on how not to campaign in Virginia.

Still, it is dangerous to assume that enthusiasm for Obama can be transferred to other Democrats.

Four years ago, Virginia Democrats counted on an off-year echo from their 2008 victory, which marked the first time their party’s presidential nominee had carried the state in 44 years. Their 2009 nominee, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, turned out to be a lackluster candidate who lost to McDonnell by 18 points.

And after surging to the polls to vote for president the year before, voters turned out at a dismal 40 percent — the lowest rate for any Virginia governor’s race in recent history.

That election turned out to be an early indicator of the disaster that awaited Democrats across the country in the midterm elections of 2010.

“From the mechanical side of the campaign — the mechanics and the tactics — Virginia will be a testing ground of what the two parties learned from 2012,” said Phil Cox, who was McDonnell’s 2009 campaign manager and is now executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

But he added: “I would caution against drawing too many lessons from the broader narrative. Every race is unique, and governor’s races are very unique,” shaped more by issues specific to individual states and by the records and personalities of the candidates.

Early polling suggests that Virginia voters have yet to gain a clear impression of either contender for governor.

A Quinnipiac University survey released this week showed the race to be a statistical tie.

But 44 percent said they do not know enough to say whether they have a favorable impression of Cuccinelli. The lack of clarity persists despite his national reputation as a conservative firebrand who led a court challenge to the Obama health-care law and his having served as attorney general for more than three years and as a state legislator before that.

Sixty-three percent said they have not heard enough to know what they think of McAuliffe, who rose to prominence in the 1990s as President Bill Clinton’s close buddy and chief fundraiser. These days, the man who titled his 2008 memoir “What a Party!” talks mostly about his more recent career as an entrepreneur making electric cars.

In his second run for office, McAuliffe is studiously avoiding the grandiosity of his first.

Whereas his entrance to the Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in 2009 was announced by a marching band, he is currently midway through a low-key tour of the state’s 23 community colleges. McAuliffe said his focus is on equipping the state for a future in which its economy cannot be so dependent on federal largesse.

Meanwhile, Cuccinelli’s team is trying to prevent his being pegged as a far-right caricature. They want to acquaint swing voters with his everyman roots, his efforts to improve the mental-health system and his work on behalf of inmates wrongly convicted.

“We have to clearly show and paint another picture of Ken that people haven’t seen before,” La­Civita said.

How the two parties manage their respective challenges will help determine whether this year’s gubernatorial election continues Virginia’s streak of delivering bad news to the party in the White House or indicates that a true realignment is underway.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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