The Democrats have a golden opportunity to snatch back the governorship in Virginia this year. Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli is the sort of ideologue that Democrats in Virginia (especially in the most populous, more moderate northern counties) love to rip to shreds. And Cuccinelli, unlike the incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell, does not package his conservatism in an approachable demeanor and a wonkish approach to problem-solving. (He recently tried to submarine the governor’s transportation plan, for example.) Cuccinelli has yet to lay out a substantive agenda, leaving himself vulnerable to an onslaught of attacks.

Mark Warner Sen. Mark Warner (Reuters)

But Democrats have their own problem: a nominee who might be the one party member who could lose to Cuccinelli, Terry McAuliffe. He lost badly in the gubernatorial primary in 2009. Since then he has done little to overcome his two main problems: He has no real Virginia profile (and in fact considered for a time running for governor of Florida), and he has no experience in or feel for governing. His declaration that he wants to go along with Medicaid expansion is typical of his reflexive liberalism. This plays well as head of the Democratic National Committee (a job he previously held), but it doesn’t fit well with Virginia’s penchant for fiscal sobriety. It also suggests some ignorance of the very real problems governors of both parties are experiencing with Medicaid. McAuliffe simply doesn’t sound or think like a problem-solving moderate Democrat in the mold of former governor and now Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

And that raises a question: Why isn’t Warner pushing McAuliffe aside to grab the governorship?  In the primary, McAuliffe would be a weak primary opponent for Warner. Sure, McAuliffe can raise a lot of money, but he’s a horrible campaigner, as he showed in 2009. Warner could instantly outraise McAuliffe and, with nearly 100 percent name recognition, zoom to the lead in the polls. After the primary, Warner could likely clobber Cuccinelli.

Such a move would make a lot of sense from Warner’s perspective. It could put him back in the limelight after an undistinguished five years in the Senate, where he virtually disappeared from view and chose to rubber-stamp much of the Obama agenda. In a bizarre incident last week, Warner lashed out at local defense contractors, blaming them in part for the sequester; it’s a perfect example of how difficult it is to be a good Virginia senator and an Obama loyalist. As I’ve noted before, it’s no fun being in Harry Reid’s Senate these days, particularly for a former business executive and governor who is used to getting things done.

The Virginia gubernatorial race is shaping up to be one in which neither candidate seems capable of winning. But maybe neither will, since each could be bypassed — McAuliffe by Warner and Cuccinelli by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is holding out the potential for a center-right independent run. If you took a poll asking Virginia voters if either Bolling or Warner would be an more acceptable governor than the current two candidates, I bet the non-candidates would do quite well. The problem for Virginia voters is getting better candidates from which to choose.