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). 
Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
Republican Polling Shows Close Race
Roundup: National Polling Remains Inconsistent
1 hours ago

The national polls, once again, tell very different stories: Clinton leads by just one point in the IBD, Rasmussen, and LA Times tracking polls, while she shows a commanding 12 point lead in the ABC news poll and a smaller but sizable five point lead in the CNN poll. The Republican Remington Research Group released a slew of polls showing Trump up in Ohio, Nevada, and North Carolina, a tie in Florida, and Clinton leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia. However, an independent Siena poll shows Clinton up 7 in North Carolina, while a Monmouth poll shows Trump up one in Arizona

Colin Powell to Vote for Clinton
3 hours ago
Cook Report: Dems to Pick up 5-7 Seats, Retake Senate
5 hours ago

Since the release of the Access Hollywood tape, on which Donald Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women, "Senate Republicans have seen their fortunes dip, particularly in states like Florida, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania," where Hillary Clinton now leads. Jennifer Duffy writes that she now expects Democrats to gain five to seven seats—enough to regain control of the chamber.

"Of the Senate seats in the Toss Up column, Trump only leads in Indiana and Missouri where both Republicans are running a few points behind him. ... History shows that races in the Toss Up column never split down the middle; one party tends to win the lion’s share of them."

Tying Republicans to Trump Now an Actionable Offense
7 hours ago

"Some Republicans are running so far away from their party’s nominee that they are threatening to sue TV stations for running ads that suggest they support Donald Trump. Just two weeks before Election Day, five Republicans―Reps. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), David Jolly (R-Fla.), John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican running for an open seat that’s currently occupied by his brother―contend that certain commercials paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee provide false or misleading information by connecting them to the GOP nominee. Trump is so terrible, these Republicans are essentially arguing, that tying them to him amounts to defamation."

Former Congressman Schock Fined $10,000
7 hours ago

Former Illinois GOP Congressman Aaron Schock "recently agreed to pay a $10,000 fine for making an excessive solicitation for a super PAC that was active in his home state of Illinois four years ago." Schock resigned from Congress after a story about his Downton Abbey-themed congressional office raised questions about how he was using taxpayer dollars.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.