Can a hardline conservative still win a governor's race in Virginia? Demographics suggest those days are gone.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli has acted on his passions and convictions throughout his political career, and that's now creating challenges for him in a state that's gone through profound changes for more than a decade. In a dyspeptic campaign between two flawed candidates, former national Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe's positions are more in tune with the state's diverse, swelling population centers – and that could make the difference.
When Cuccinelli won a special election to the state Senate in 2002, Northern Virginia was at the start of an explosive decade of growth that transformed its people and politics. The four-county, suburban Washington region accounted for more than half of the state's growth from 2000 to 2010, as professionals and minorities flooded in. One third of the state now lives in Northern Virginia, and most of the rest live in the Richmond and Norfolk areas.
Diversity, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. The state Hispanic population nearly doubled over the period, and there was a 63 percent increase in mixed-race residents. The politics have evolved as you would expect, culminating in President Obama's landmark 2008 and 2012 victories in Virginia, powered by the Northern Virginia counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William.
It was always hard to see how Cuccinelli would hold his own among the suburban liberals and moderates in the region, particularly women, given his lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and a climate scientist at the University of Virginia; his attempts to make divorce more difficult; and his opposition to gay rights, abortion rights, immigration reform, the new health law's Medicaid expansion, and a bipartisan plan to ease the terrible traffic that threatens to cramp growth in Northern Virginia.
Cuccinelli and McAuliffe have gone after each other ferociously on integrity, trust, and character issues, and the media have not spared either of them on their ethics or records (Cuccinelli as hard-right culture warrior, McAuliffe as a businessman who tapped connections and government programs to reap big profits for himself). So far, McAuliffe's shortcomings have not sent moderates and independents fleeing to Cuccinelli. McAuliffe's pollster, Geoffrey Garin, says Cuccinelli is "losing white moderates overwhelmingly" because he has "deliberately vacated any claim to the center."
The campaign is pressing that point in TV ads on abortion and divorce that ask why Cuccinelli wants to interfere in people's lives. The tactic is working, judging by McAuliffe's double-digit leads over Cuccinelli among women in polls this month. Independents are split equally between the two men in a Quinnipiac poll, while McAuliffe gets more than three-quarters of black votes.
Cuccinelli also has watched a number of prominent Republican figures endorse his opponent. "These are the cards that he dealt himself; these are his strategic choices to reach this point in his career," says political scientist Michael McDonald, a voter-turnout specialist at George Mason University. "He's got to rev up his base as much as he can" and hope that doesn't also get McAuliffe's base all excited.
New fodder for base-revving arrived recently in the form of proposed new federal regulations on coal plants. Cuccinelli and his allies immediately greeted them as a revival of the "war on coal" they say is being waged by Obama, McAuliffe, and Democrats. A Cuccinelli TV ad says it's also " a war on the working poor, our livelihood." But Virginia's coal mines are located in three southwest counties with a total population of about 82,000 compared with more than 2 million who live in Northern Virginia – so not that many people are affected. In fact, says McDonald, "those coal regions actually lost population over the last decade, they didn't gain it." Nor is McAuliffe leaving the coalfields to Cuccinelli. He is trying to cut into the Republican's support there with an ad highlighting a probe into whether Cuccinelli's office improperly helped energy companies in a fight against local landowners, and another featuring one of the landowners.
Cuccinelli is taking the fight to McAuliffe as well, with ads that aim to reach moderates, minorities, and Northern Virginia. His spots include one about his work as attorney general securing justice for Thomas Haynesworth, who served 27 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, and another showcasing his endorsement by the political arm of the Northern Virginia Technology Council (complete with a cameo of McAuliffe in a Hawaiian shirt waving a liquor bottle – a TV appearance during the Hillary Clinton campaign). Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix says that endorsement and others, including the National Federation of Independent business, show that Cuccinelli is gaining support and is viewed as more serious than McAuliffe on jobs.
The tough, bifurcated task facing Cuccinelli is to recapture some moderates even as he whips his base into a frenzy over coal and Obamacare. It's not out of the question it might work. Even as Virginia has gone increasingly blue in Senate and presidential races, it has remained conservative in off-years when a much older, whiter electorate turns out for state-level races.
Still, Democrats now have a political infrastructure and also a much larger pool of potential supporters who could, if motivated, change the composition of that electorate. "The big question is whether Virginia has reached a tipping point," says Dustin Cable, a demographics researcher at the University of Virginia. If a candidate with as many problems as McAuliffe can win, the answer will be emphatically yes.