The former Democratic Committee Chairman, best friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and wheeler-dealer businessman, is a Syracuse, N.Y., native who has virtually no practical government experience and who has offered a paint-by-the-numbers liberal platform in a state with a long conservative tradition. McAuliffe stumbled badly in his one previous bid for the governorship in 2009 amid GOP charges that he was a “carpetbagger.”
Yet McAuliffe is leading Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli by as much as 12 percentage points among likely voters, 51 percent to 39 percent, according to a new Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll. And experts predict he will sweep to an impressive victory Tuesday night in an election with important political implications for future races.
The Virginia gubernatorial campaign may lack some of the personal excitement and pizzazz of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s drive towards a huge reelection victory today – one that will almost certainly burnish the maverick Republican’s credentials as a front-runner in 2016 GOP presidential sweepstakes.
Yet the race in Virginia to succeed retiring Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is heavily freighted with political significance as well – both as a test of President Obama’s residual political power and the limitations of far-right conservative candidacies such as Cuccinelli’s in important swing states. A handful of Senate Democrats will be fighting for their political lives in the 2014 congressional elections, but they could be helped by Republicans challenges that veer too far out of the mainstream.
Cuccinelli is one of his state’s leading conservative spokesman. As attorney general he helped energize tea party activists with his strong views on downsizing government, resisting immigration reform and opposing abortion and same sex marriage. He was also among the first state AGs to challenge the legality of the Affordable Care Act.
State GOP leaders paved the way for Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial nomination over a more moderate Republican earlier this year by jettisoning a primary election in favor of a state convention stacked with tea party activists.
Over time, however, Virginia’s political complexion gradually changed from red to purple – enough so that Obama won the state twice in the 2008 and 2012 presidential contests. He racked up huge totals in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Richmond area that the GOP could not match in less populated expanses.
If history were any guide, Cuccinelli should be well ahead at this point as he was earlier this year, according to statewide polls. That’s because in the nine most recent elections, the party in control of the White House has lost the Virginia governor’s race.
But history has been stood on its head, thanks in part to voter outrage over the GOP’s role in forcing a 16-day federal government shutdown last month and a corruption and gift scandal hanging over McDonnell, the outgoing Republican governor.
Even more of a problem for Cuccinelli is that women voters trust McAuliffe much more than him on social and economic issues such as abortion, health care, gun control, the environment and transportation. Among men, the two candidates are running neck and neck. Among women, however, Cuccinelli trails by 24 points – 58 percent to 34 percent – according to last week’s Washington Post poll.
Finally, McAuliffe -- once dubbed “the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe” by former Vice President Al Gore -- enjoys a huge cash advantage over Cuccinelli. The Democrat has raised more than $34 million, including $8 million picked up in October, while Cuccinelli has raise just under $20 million.
McAuliffe has bombarded Cuccinelli with negative ads portraying the attorney general as out of step with a fast changing Virginia. And he brought in the big guns – the Clintons and Obama – to campaign at his side in the waning days of the campaign.
“Republicans have apparently thrown away a natural advantage, Virginia's tendency since 1977 to elect a governor from the party opposite to the White House,” Larry Sabato, a political professor at the University of Virginia, told The Fiscal Times. “They did it by nominating a hard-right candidate whose positions on social issues do not match an increasingly moderate state. The incumbent GOP governor helped with his gifts scandal, which entangled Cuccinelli and eliminated a big campaign asset for the GOP.”
In his final desperate days to overcome McAuliffe’s huge advantages, Cuccinelli has sought to turn the election into a referendum on Obama’s troubled health care program. When Obama crossed the Potomac River into Virginia last weekend to campaign for McAulliffe, Cuccinelli declared, “Come on in, Mr. President . . . You bring everybody’s focus to Obamacare,” according to the New York Times.
Obama lashed out at Cuccinelli and his conservative allies, telling a friendly crowd, “You’ve seen an extreme faction of the Republican Party that has shown again and again and again that they’re willing to hijack the entire party and the country and the economy and bring progress to an absolute halt if they don’t get 100 percent of what they want.”
Still, the president – badly battered by his own self-inflicted failures, and by Republicans and some nervous Democrats up for reelection next year—urged Democrats to take nothing for granted. “Virginia has always been a swing state, and this race will be close,” Mr. Obama said at McAuliffe’s rally, according to The New York Times. “Nothing makes me more nervous than when my supporters start feeling too confident. I want to put the fear of God into all of you.”