Democrats are eager to portray Ken Cuccinelli's expected loss on Tuesday as an ominous sign for the future of the Republican party. Indeed, if the Republican state attorney general loses, it will mark the first time that Virginia voters backed a governor from the same party as the president in 40 years.
But Cuccinelli was such a uniquely weak candidate that it's irrelevant to extrapolate his problems with the long-term prospects of the Republican party. Just look at New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie is expected to win by an even bigger margin than Democrat Terry McAuliffe – in a state that's even more Democratic than the Old Dominion.
Indeed, there were a host of only-in-Virginia factors that doomed Cuccinelli's campaign from the start. He was badly outspent and unable to match McAuliffe's money on television, the state's GOP governor was enmeshed in scandal and unable to help his campaign, and most importantly, the timing of the government shutdown crippled any momentum he could have received.
McAuliffe has vastly outspent Cuccinelli on television advertising throughout the campaign, dropping more than $14 million on advertising since May while Cuccinelli has spent about $8.5 million, according to the Washington Post. The overwhelming majority of those ads have focused on the Republican's social agenda, accusing him of everything from wanting to prevent women from divorcing to planning to take birth control pills away from Virginia women.
Until recently, Cuccinelli largely glossed over his record on social issues, arguing that he will do little as governor to enact an ideological agenda. McAuliffe has pushed those social issues into the campaign, while Cuccinelli hasn't had the resources to respond.
"I think at the end of the day they're going to get outspent two-to-one," the Republican operative said.
Democrats are unlikely to replicate McAuliffe's massive spending advantage in other contests next year. Outside Republican groups are expected to play an active role in closing any financial gap, while a targeted Senate Republican like Mitch McConnell is sitting on a multi-million dollar warchest.
Meanwhile, the tea party-led shutdown in October was a unique crisis that couldn't have come at a worse time for Cuccinelli, who was trying to moderate his conservative image. He was entering the final month of the race down in the polls -- but not yet out.
But with over one-quarter of the Virginia electorate working for the federal government, according to this week's Washington Post poll, the backlash helped McAuliffe expand his lead. The poll showed McAuliffe with a 12-point lead overall, 69 percent of voters said that the shutdown was an "important" factor in their vote. Of the 55 percent who rated it as "very important" to their vote, they back McAuliffe by a two-to-one margin.
"I don't know that the outcome would be any different without the government shutdown, but it was a close race without it," said one
national Republican operative who has tracked the race.
The shutdown fight also overshadowed the difficulties Democrats have had in implementing President Obama's health care law, which Cuccinelli fought aggressively as state attorney general.
Another development that's unique to Virginia is the scandal that encompassed outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell, once viewed as the Republican's biggest asset on the campaign trail. But after McDonnell became enmeshed in a scandal over accepting costly gifts from a campaign donor – one Cuccinelli found himself connected to, as well – he lost any ability to tap into the governor's (fading) popularity.
Even as McAuliffe's business dealings have been closely scrutinized by the press, the Washington Post poll found more Virginians view the former DNC chairman as more honest and trustworthy than Cuccinelli – by a nine-point margin.