After President Obama won Virginia for the second time in a row last November, Democrats were crowing that the state’s governorship would be theirs for the taking this fall.
Their reasoning was simple: Obama had won twice, incumbent GOP governor Bob McDonnell is term-limited, Republicans have lost every U.S. Senate race in Virginia since 2000, and Democrats have said for years that Ken Cuccinelli, the hard-shelled conservative attorney general who is the GOP nominee this year, is unelectable.
But their confidence has gotten a little shaky of late. The Real Clear Politics average of all recent polls shows Cuccinelli with a slim lead, 43 to 42 percent, over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, best known for being Bill Clinton’s fundraising consigliere and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005. In sizing up the race, the liberal American Prospect magazine admitted that McAuliffe was “a weak candidate” who “would have struggled to win the nomination this time if anyone had contested it.” When he had real opponents in the 2009 race, McAuliffe placed a poor third in the Democratic primary. His advantage this year is that as a master fundraiser, he has oodles of money for the kind of get-out-the-vote efforts that pulled Barack Obama across the finish line to victory in Virginia.
But Democrats also think they have a silver bullet. They are frustrated that Cuccinelli has drifted to the center (he has refused to sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and endorsed Governor McDonnell’s relaxing of restrictions on felons’ regaining the right to vote). But they think they can still paint Cuccinelli as a wild-eyed extremist by linking him to E. W. Jackson, the African-American minister who, in a surprise win, nabbed the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. (In Virginia, the governor and lieutenant governor do not run on the same ticket.) Jackson is strong medicine for many voters, having said such things as that “Obama clearly has Muslim sensibilities” and that liberals have “done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery, and Jim Crow ever did.”
Although Jackson says he offered his more controversial statements in his role as a minister rather than as a candidate, Democrats will still gleefully try to portray him as an out-of-the-mainstream loon.
Cuccinelli has at times been supportive of Jackson and at other times has avoided warmly embracing him. He told me earlier this month that he is grateful for the enthusiasm of Jackson voters and is convinced the minister will motivate both conservatives and some socially conservative blacks to go to the polls. But he also told WMAL radio in Washington this week that Virginians are used to voting for statewide candidates separately. Three of the state’s last ten gubernatorial elections have seen governors of one party elected while the other party has won the lieutenant governorship. “There’s no question that we’ve got to get over the line each of us one at a time,” Cuccinelli told WMAL.
Cuccinelli plans to do his part to cross that line by pounding away at McAuliffe’s generally acknowledged lack of familiarity with state government and issues. “He comes from New York; he’s worked in Washington, D.C., much of his life; and his clean-energy so-called job-creation efforts in Virginia didn’t pan out,” Cuccinelli says. “I have fought for Virginia in the legislature and in court on everything from Obamacare to education to excessive federal interference in the state’s affairs.”
In the past, McAuliffe has dismissed claims that his connections to Virginia are scant or frayed. “I’m a fighter for the middle class who never quits,” he told me early this year. “That comes through.” He also says the state is home to many new residents and immigrants who make up a new, less traditional Virginia. In 2012, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians made up 34 percent of the state’s population, helping Obama best Romney while winning only 37 percent of the white vote.
But Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot this year, voter turnout will be much lower in an off-year race for governor, and Washington scandals and a sluggish economy could further depress liberal enthusiasm. That’s why Democrats appear to be placing so many bets on the argument that Cuccinelli is a wild-eyed wacko with a sidekick who’s even crazier than he is. The only problem with that argument is that they’ve used it before. In 2009, Bob McDonnell, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, was heading the GOP ticket and a hardline conservative named Ken Cuccinelli was the party’s candidate for attorney general. Both wound up winning with over 58 percent of the vote.
Virginia could indeed swing Democratic this year, but the only way that’s going to happen is if Democrats win the policy arguments and convince voters they have better ideas. Relying on bogeyman scare tactics hasn’t worked in the past, and so far it isn’t working this year.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.