Terry McAuliffe’s Summer Stunner

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, center, walks to a backstage meeting with the news media following his participation in the Battleground Forum at George Mason University in Manassas, Va., Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. 
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

In some odd years, gubernat­ori­al races and spe­cial con­gres­sion­al elec­tions of­fer a fore­shad­ow­ing, or at least a hint, of what might hap­pen in the next year’s na­tion­al elec­tions. In oth­er odd years, no pat­tern emerges. We nev­er know which un­til after the na­tion­al elec­tions oc­cur, mak­ing the off-year elec­tions a less-than-help­ful in­dic­at­or.

This year, the out­come of New Jer­sey’s gubernat­ori­al elec­tion on Nov. 5 is un­likely to tell us any­thing use­ful about the 2014 midterms. Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie looks al­most cer­tain to roll up a big reelec­tion vic­tory. Much will be read in­to the res­ults, giv­en the state’s heavy Demo­crat­ic tilt. Christie’s vic­tory, though, won’t fore­tell the fu­ture. It will simply re­flect that he is ex­ceed­ingly for­mid­able and has cracked the code of how a Re­pub­lic­an wins in a Demo­crat­ic state, much the way former New Jer­sey GOP Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whit­man did be­fore him.

The bet­ter test will be the gubernat­ori­al race in Vir­gin­ia between Re­pub­lic­an state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Cuc­cinelli and busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive Terry McAul­iffe, a former chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee. His­tor­ic­ally, Vir­gin­ia has been a red, con­ser­vat­ive state; after all, Rich­mond was the cap­it­al of the Con­fed­er­acy. In re­cent years, though, Vir­gin­ia has be­come more of a Mid-At­lantic state, in part be­cause of an in­flux of non-South­ern­ers, es­pe­cially to the heav­ily pop­u­lated North­ern Vir­gin­ia and Tide­wa­ter re­gions. That is why Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried the Old Domin­ion twice, al­beit nar­rowly. Vir­gin­ia is now a purple, swing state.

Neither ma­jor-party nom­in­ee has any spe­cial claim on its grow­ing num­bers of mod­er­ate, in­de­pend­ent, and swing voters. That dy­nam­ic, plus the fact that voter turnout plum­mets in non-pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, is ex­actly why the race is such a fair fight.

Cuc­cinelli entered the con­test with a well-earned repu­ta­tion as a hard-char­ging, take-no-pris­on­ers con­ser­vat­ive, more re­flect­ive of the Old Dixie Vir­gin­ia than the new Mid-At­lantic state. He has a pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing among many con­ser­vat­ives, al­though quite a few mem­bers of the GOP es­tab­lish­ment are un­com­fort­able with his style and have been skep­tic­al about his abil­ity to win a gen­er­al elec­tion.

On the oth­er side, many doc­trin­aire lib­er­als don’t trust McAul­iffe. Some of the sus­pi­cion goes back to bad blood from the 2008 pres­id­en­tial race when he was foursquare in the camp of close friends Bill and Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, while many of his crit­ics were on Barack Obama’s team. McAul­iffe rep­res­en­ted the old-style es­tab­lish­ment, while Obama and lib­er­als were more as­so­ci­ated with the Left’s new polit­ics. Plus, many lib­er­als tend to be skep­tic­al of busi­nesspeople gen­er­ally, and McAul­iffe’s wheel­er-deal­er repu­ta­tion puts off many such voters. All of this means the nom­in­ee is reas­on­ably strong among Demo­crats gen­er­ally but less so with the more ideo­lo­gic­al wing of the party — roughly the re­verse of Cuc­cinelli’s situ­ation on the GOP side.

From Janu­ary through the end of May, 13 pub­lic polls were re­leased: McAul­iffe held nar­row leads in sev­en and Cuc­cinelli in five; one poll had them tied. Five of the polls re­flec­ted in­con­sequen­tial leads of just 1 or 2 per­cent­age points. The widest mar­gin for either can­did­ate in this baker’s dozen was a Cuc­cinelli lead of 8 points. It’s fair to say that after Me­mori­al Day, the race looked pretty much like a jump ball.

In many ways, McAul­iffe had about as bad a sum­mer as a can­did­ate can have. A series of neg­at­ive stor­ies about his busi­ness af­fairs, par­tic­u­larly in­volving GreenTech Auto­mot­ive and the Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion’s in­vest­ig­a­tion of the com­pany, put him on the de­fens­ive and off-mes­sage for weeks. Mean­while, Cuc­cinelli had to dis­tance him­self from Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell, who, along with his wife, is un­der fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion for tak­ing gifts from a large donor. The at­tor­ney gen­er­al has been brushed by the scan­dal, but he has been cleared of any wrong­do­ing.

From the tone of the sum­mer’s news cov­er­age, one might guess that Cuc­cinelli would hold a small lead in the polls. Al­though the Re­pub­lic­an was the sub­ject of quite a few un­flat­ter­ing stor­ies, the pre­pon­der­ance of the bad press seemed aimed at McAul­iffe. The pub­lic polling, however, shows something dif­fer­ent. McAul­iffe has a lead in six of sev­en re­cent pub­lic sur­veys, with mar­gins ran­ging from 3 to 10 points.

It’s hard to fig­ure what’s go­ing on, be­cause McAul­iffe cer­tainly didn’t “win the sum­mer.” Per­haps his nar­row ad­vant­age comes from a com­bin­a­tion of factors. It is pos­sible that Mc­Don­nell’s prob­lems are rub­bing off on Cuc­cinelli and fuel­ing a time-for-a-change sen­ti­ment. An­oth­er reas­on could be that Cuc­cinelli’s strong ideo­logy is be­com­ing more prob­lem­at­ic among voters, even as the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s na­tion­al neg­at­ives weigh him down. A third factor could be E.W. Jack­son, the GOP’s very con­ser­vat­ive and of­ten-con­tro­ver­sial nom­in­ee for lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor. Jack­son proved to be a dis­trac­tion to Cuc­cinelli’s ef­forts over the sum­mer to ease sub­urb­an­ites’ dis­com­fort with him. The fi­nal factor could be money. McAul­iffe and his al­lies have out­spent Cuc­cinelli and his back­ers by a fairly sig­ni­fic­ant amount.

Still, this race seems far from over. Most Vir­gin­ia voters aren’t yet fo­cused on the con­test, which isn’t un­usu­al at this point in the cycle. Today, it’s prob­ably safer to call it something close to a 50-50 race. Based on sum­mer polling, you could per­haps put a tiny fin­ger on the scale for McAul­iffe, but not enough to war­rant lay­ing a con­fid­ent bet.

Whichever party is vic­tori­ous in Novem­ber is cer­tain to crow that the res­ult is of great na­tion­al im­port. Par­tis­ans will ar­gue that Vir­gin­ia is a swing state that is rep­res­ent­at­ive of the coun­try. But this con­test has enough weird angles — not the least of which is a gov­ernor in pro­sec­utors’ crosshairs — that such claims might well be an over­reach. 

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