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How to Win in Virginia as a Liberal Democrat

Unlike Mark Warner and Tim Kaine before him, Terry McAuliffe is touting a distinctly left-leaning social agenda.

Running to the left: Terry McAuliffe(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

No one would confuse Terry McAuliffe with a policy wonk. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia is more likely to be found slapping backs than cracking books. He has ascended in the political world through prodigious fundraising, not breakthrough thinking. All of which makes it even more telling that in his race against Republican Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe has almost completely embraced President Obama’s agenda on social issues and the environment.

Virginia Democrats historically have sought a cautious middle ground on such questions, largely in hope of holding culturally conservative blue-collar, evangelical, and rural white voters long considered indispensable to statewide success. But McAuliffe has repeatedly adopted liberal social positions that ensure repeated conflicts with those voters—while providing fuel to energize the Democrats’ new “coalition of the ascendant” centered on minorities, the millennial generation, and white-collar white voters, especially women. All of this has established a cavernous contrast with Cuccinelli, an unflinching conservative culture warrior, who has pushed the envelope of opposition to abortion, gay rights, and illegal immigration, as well as Obama’s health care and environmental policies.

Like the president, McAuliffe has endorsed gay marriage; universal background checks for gun purchases; an assault-weapons ban; a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally; a mandate on employers offering health insurance to include free contraception coverage; and limits on carbon emissions from new coal-fired power plants. He would also reverse the tight restrictions on abortion clinics championed by state Republicans led by Cuccinelli and outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell.

 

Blue-state Democrats routinely adopt such positions. But in purple Virginia, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, now both senators, moved more warily when they won the governorship in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Both men opposed further gun-control legislation and rejected gay marriage (although they opposed, as overly broad, a state constitutional amendment to ban it).

The positions reflected each man’s personal beliefs but also the Democratic Party’s reluctance to antagonize culturally conservative rural voters. Now Warner and Kaine join McAuliffe in supporting gay marriage, universal background checks, and a pathway to citizenship. That evolution suggests Virginia Democrats have increasingly decided that failing to motivate their “coalition of the ascendant” is a greater electoral risk than alienating right-leaning whites. With that conclusion, they are following the precedent set by Obama in his reelection campaign when he aggressively leaned left on social issues.

Obama’s two Virginia victories demonstrated that the Democrats’ coalition can carry the state in a high-participation presidential year. But Republicans swept the 2009 statewide races partly because turnout plummeted among young and minority voters, while whites and seniors soared as a share of the electorate.

This year, Democrats are employing targeting techniques from Obama’s campaign-data wizards to identify potential supporters. Yet McAuliffe’s advisers recognize that better mechanics alone won’t drive turnout and that his fate will pivot more on exciting intermittent Democratic-leaning voters than reassuring right-tilting whites. “It is difficult to create enthusiasm and engagement among both Democratic voters and Democratic activists if you don’t step up on these issues,” said Geoff Garin, McAuliffe’s pollster.

Shifting population patterns have allowed—even pressured—Virginia Democrats to execute this shift. Geographically, as my colleague David Wasserman has calculated, socially liberal Northern Virginia, swelled by a vibrant technology sector, is steadily marching toward 30 percent of the statewide vote. Meanwhile, the downscale white Appalachian counties that Republicans have targeted with their “war on coal” campaign against McAuliffe (and Obama) have dipped to less than 10 percent.

Demographically, the state is growing better educated and more diverse, enlarging the strongest Democratic constituencies. Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll showed McAuliffe winning just one-third of noncollege whites but capturing almost half of college-educated whites (including a majority of such women), most young voters, and a commanding three-fourths of minorities. That tracked Obama’s winning coalition and was enough for a nearly double-digit overall lead.

Ironically, because Cuccinelli has such a militant record on social issues, he hasn’t much criticized McAuliffe’s views for fear of reminding swing voters about his own. That decision alone, however, reflects the state’s changing balance, and if McAuliffe wins with his liberal social positions, it would signal a more serious threat for the GOP than the Warner and Kaine victories. “It’s a turning point,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican who represented a district in Northern Virginia. “If the party stays steadfast on their [cultural] issues, it is going to go the way of Republicans in California. The demographics, and the issue matrix, have changed right underneath them.”

Democrats beyond the bluest states have often hedged on social issues to avoid alienating culturally conservative whites. But as the party relies less on those voters, other purple-state Democrats, such as Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, have placed the same wager as McAuliffe and aligned with the social priorities of their new coalition, even at the price of goading conservatives. That has solidified Democratic unity on previously divisive issues such as gay marriage and immigration. Yet this consensus is likely to last only if it produces swing-state victories, starting with McAuliffe’s race next month.

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