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.

ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 29: Virginia Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D) speaks to the media after talking about energy during The Virginia Energy & Opportunity Forum at the George Mason University School of Law, August 29, 2013 in Arlington, Va. Candidate McAuliffe is running in a heated race for Governor against Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). 
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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 17, 2013, 5 p.m.

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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