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.