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
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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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