Terrible Candidates, Awful Campaign Take Virginia From Bellwether to Sideshow

Virginia’s governors race can carry national implications, giving political strategists clues about mid-terms and the presidential. Not this time.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, left, greets Democratic challenger Terry McCauliffe, right, during the Virginia Bar Association convention debate at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. Saturday, July 20, 2013.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Sept. 16, 2013, 2 a.m.

The gov­ernor’s race in the con­sum­mate swing state of Vir­gin­ia is in­creas­ingly look­ing like a fluke rather than a bell­weth­er with na­tion­al im­plic­a­tions for the 2014 and 2016 elec­tions.

That’s a re­versal from 2009, when vic­tor­ies by Re­pub­lic­ans Bob Mc­Don­nell and Chris Christie in the off-year gubernat­ori­al races were widely seen as har­bingers of the full-throated back­lash against Pres­id­ent Obama in the 2010 mid-terms.

But in 2013, the pop­u­lar Christie is coast­ing to reelec­tion against a little-known Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger, while Vir­gin­ia’s race fea­tures two can­did­ates so per­son­ally un­pop­u­lar that the polit­ics are prac­tic­ally ir­rel­ev­ant. “We can’t re­mem­ber a race between two can­did­ates with such low per­son­al fa­vor­ab­il­it­ies,” de­clared the bi­par­tis­an firm Purple Strategies, which found only 24 per­cent of Vir­gini­ans have a fa­vor­able view of Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe and 29 per­cent have a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion of Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli. Even par­tis­ans don’t em­brace them; only 53 per­cent of Demo­crats and 54 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans view their own nom­in­ees fa­vor­ably.

“Bell­weth­ers are in­dic­ated when you have can­did­ates who are bet­ter rep­res­ent­at­ive of na­tion­al forces, and here you have two ex­tremely dam­aged can­did­ates,” said poll­ster Doug Ush­er, who con­duc­ted the sur­vey. “It’s hard to say there are na­tion­al dy­nam­ics when these are can­did­ates neither party wants to have. It’s clearly a can­did­ate-centered race, and most of what voters are see­ing is neg­at­ive and per­son­al in nature.”

Poll­ster Pete Brod­nitz, who ad­vised McAul­iffe in 2009 and worked on Demo­crat Tim Kaine’s suc­cess­ful statewide cam­paigns in 2005 and 2012, noted that al­though Cuc­cinelli has po­si­tioned him­self as a lead­ing crit­ic of Obama’s con­tro­ver­sial health care law, his cam­paign’s ads are largely aimed at trash­ing McAul­iffe’s busi­ness re­cord. When Cuc­cinelli has tried to na­tion­al­ize the race, as he did when he came out against Obama’s plan for mil­it­ary strikes in Syr­ia, McAul­iffe res­isted by de­clin­ing to take sides.

“I really don’t think the race is a bell­weth­er in­dic­at­ive of lar­ger trends this year,” Brod­nitz said. “It’s a very per­son­al­ized race about their back­grounds, and they’re not really de­bat­ing lar­ger philo­soph­ic­al is­sues. It’s unique in that way.”

Voters get­ting in­form­a­tion about the race from tele­vi­sion ads are see­ing McAul­iffe, the former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man, cast as a sleazy busi­ness­man and power broker, and Cuc­cinelli, the sit­ting at­tor­ney gen­er­al, por­trayed as a right-wing ideo­logue.

The un­usu­ally per­son­al nature of the race, however, hasn’t stopped the na­tion­al parties from seek­ing a man­date. Out-of-state money has poured in­to the race. Out­raised by McAul­iffe, Cuc­cinelli is in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on the fun­drais­ing prowess of na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an fig­ures and the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation. Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida is sched­uled to head­line a re­cep­tion for Cuc­cinelli on Monday; former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush is on deck Tues­day.

“Wheth­er you live in Vir­gin­ia or not, what hap­pens there mat­ters a great deal for every con­ser­vat­ive in Amer­ica,” Ru­bio wrote in a fun­drais­ing ap­peal. “If we can elect a real con­ser­vat­ive like Ken in a purple state like Vir­gin­ia, it will be an im­port­ant step to­ward show­ing the na­tion that con­ser­vat­ive ideas can tri­umph any­where.”

But con­ser­vat­ive ideas — or lib­er­al ones, for that mat­ter — have had little bear­ing on this chaot­ic cam­paign. Both can­did­ates have sought to put jobs at the fore­front — McAul­iffe has even vis­ited all of the state’s com­munity col­leges — but per­son­al at­tacks have drowned out policy de­bates.

Con­sider the past week: Cuc­cinelli sought to de­fuse ques­tions about his ties to the chief ex­ec­ut­ive of Star Sci­entif­ic by an­noun­cing in an on­line video that he had donated the value of the gifts, $18,000, to char­ity. (The busi­ness­man’s re­la­tion­ship with Mc­Don­nell, whose fam­ily has re­ceived tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in cash and gifts, is un­der fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion.) One day later, Cuc­cinelli’s top ad­viser, Chris La­Civ­ita, dis­trib­uted a memo to the press com­plain­ing about “a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of neg­at­ive scru­tiny” and ur­ging the me­dia to bear down on a probe con­cern­ing for­eign in­vest­ment in McAul­iffe’s former elec­tric­al-car com­pany.

The fol­low­ing day, the Re­pub­lic­an Party called on McAul­iffe to re­turn a 2009 dona­tion from a D.C. busi­ness­man linked to an il­li­cit turnout drive for Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

“It’s al­most like a weird, spe­cial elec­tion for the House,” Ush­er said. “It’s not like if McAul­iffe wins you can say everything is go­ing great for Demo­crats or if Cuc­cinelli wins it means cur­tains for their ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate.”

Still, it’s un­deni­able that Vir­gin­ia voters are heav­ily in­flu­enced by na­tion­al polit­ics, elect­ing gov­ernors from the party out­side the White House since 1977. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll pegged dis­ap­prov­al of Obama’s job per­form­ance at 52 per­cent, the highest num­ber in a year. In the same poll and oth­er re­cent pub­lic sur­veys, about 60 per­cent said the coun­try is go­ing on the wrong dir­ec­tion.

“Most Amer­ic­ans don’t think Obama is go­ing a good job or like where Demo­crats are tak­ing us, and that’s go­ing to in­flu­ence their view of McAul­iffe,” ar­gued Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster John McLaugh­lin, who has sur­veyed the state ex­tens­ively. “I don’t think the av­er­age voter sees a lot of dif­fer­ence between Terry McAul­iffe and the Clin­tons and Barack Obama. If Cuc­cinelli wins, I think it’s a good in­dic­at­or for Re­pub­lic­ans in 2014.”

First lady Michelle Obama head­lined an event for McAul­iffe in June, and Hil­lary Clin­ton is sched­uled to ap­pear on his be­half on Sept. 30.

While any na­tion­al im­plic­a­tions of the race will take time to shake out, the polling does reach one in­es­cap­able con­clu­sion: the Re­pub­lic­an Party con­tin­ues to have trouble ap­peal­ing to wo­men. In the Purple Strategies poll, McAul­iffe led Cuc­cinelli by 18 per­cent­age points among wo­men. That’s the same size of the gender gap in a po­ten­tial 2016 match­up between Clin­ton and Christie. Wo­men prefer Clin­ton over GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, an­oth­er pos­sible pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, by 16 per­cent­age points.

“The gender gap was one of the big prob­lems for Re­pub­lic­ans in 2012,” Ush­er said, “and there’s little in­dic­a­tion that per­sist­ent gender gap is go­ing away.”

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