Virginia Isn’t the Place Ken Cuccinelli Thinks It Is

The state has grown and changed dramatically in the last decade, giving a demographic edge to the Democrat in a contest between two awful candidates.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli addresses the Virginia Energy and Opportunity Forum in Arlington, Va., Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. 
National Journal
Jill Lawrence
Sept. 25, 2013, 8:03 a.m.

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.

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