The face-off between Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe in the off-cycle Virginia gubernatorial election to replace Gov. Bob McDonnell is many things.

Terry McAuliffe (Megan Lovett/Daily Progress via Associated Press)

It is a test as to whether an undiluted social conservative can win statewide in Virginia.

It is a test as to whether Virginia will depart from its pattern of electing the candidate of the party that lost the White House the preceding year.

It is a test as to whether McDonnell really wants to align himself with Cuccinelli or concludes his national aspirations would be better served by doing less, rather than more.

It is a test as to how popular McDonnell’s signature achievements are and whether either candidate will run on repealing his education and transportation reforms.

One thing it is not is what a steady flow of lazy pundits are claiming is a “referendum on Hillary Clinton.” That sounds on the surface like it might make sense. McAuliffe is a longtime Clinton aide and friend and former Democratic National Committee chief; both Clintons support him; and Hillary Clinton is very likely to be a 2016 contender. We have an election in swing state. So, poof : A referendum on Clinton!

This, of course, makes zero sense, other than as a catchy headline. Virginians are notoriously indifferent, if not downright ornery, when it comes to national politics and their statewide elections. The “Virginia way” refers to a brand of civil, centrist politics that has by and large escaped the worst excesses of national politics.

Should McAuliffe lose, it won’t be because Virginians rejected Clinton or because the Clinton-machine couldn’t deliver enough cash. It will be because his connection to the state is slight, he’s never held public office, he’s too liberal on a variety of issues, his attachment to Big Labor is a red flag, and he (as we saw in 2009) is a really bad campaigner.

Should McAuliffe win, it won’t be because Virginians wanted to endorse Clinton for president. It will be because Cuccinelli didn’t run a substantive campaign, was perceived as antagonistic toward women and gays, was too ideological for voter-rich Northern Virginia and was consumed by catering to national conservative opinion leaders.

If you’ve noticed, neither candidate is likely to win because of his own merits. This is the worst choice for Virginians in recent memory. Both candidates already have high negatives, and neither can come within shouting distance of a positive agenda. The race is likely to be a slugfest, with voters choosing the least of two bad alternatives. ( I may have to write in someone — suggestions?)

The desire for bored media figures to contort every race, vote and policy proposal into a referendum on the 2016 election is unfortunate but hardly surprising. State and local politics too often get short shrift by mainstream outlets, which lack the experienced reporters and statehouse gurus to bring lively and important coverage to readers and viewers. But still that is no excuse for telling us an election is about something it’s not.