A McAwful Turn for Virginia

by Jim Geraghty
If you lose the spending war on the airwaves, you’re likely to lose on Election Day.

As Virginia’s gubernatorial race enters its final stretch, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has been re-running an ad from earlier in the year.

The ad, “Too Important,” is designed to promote McAuliffe as a bipartisan dealmaker, but it also features outgoing governor Bob McDonnell quite a bit, as one of the heroes of the story, bedeviled by Cuccinelli and “tea-party Republicans” until McAuliffe arrives to save the day:

McAuliffe’s willingness to associate himself with McDonnell — over a tax increase! — points to the fallacy of one of the more popular theories of this year’s election in Virginia: that the scandal surrounding McDonnell’s acceptance of more than $145,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy donor, Jonnie Williams Sr., CEO of Star Scientific, is hurting Cuccinelli. (McDonnell is limited to one term.)

The scandal certainly doesn’t help the Republican candidate, of course, but McDonnell regularly polled better than Cuccinelli this year, even after details of the scandal emerged.

A Quinnipiac survey in late August found 47 percent approving of McDonnell’s performance in office, with 39 percent disapproving; At the same time, that pollster found Cuccinelli with only 42 percent head-to-head against McAuliffe and only 35 percent saying they had a favorable opinion of Cuccinelli.

In late September, NBC4/NBC News/Marist showed a 55 percent job-approval rating for McDonnell, with 53 percent viewing him favorably. An October Politico poll found 44 percent approving of McDonnell’s job performance, 40 percent disapproving. In that same survey, Cuccinelli is getting only 35 percent support (42 percent with Libertarian Robert Sarvis removed from the list of options) and only 34 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of him.

In perhaps the most jarring result of all, the NBC survey found that among registered voters, McDonnell leads a head-to-head matchup against the Democrat, 47 percent to 42 percent.

If the gift scandal hasn’t really hurt McDonnell that much, it’s hard to believe that it is somehow the decisive problem for Cuccinelli.

Recent coverage of the race suggests Cuccinelli is now being hurt by a policy fight he has no real ability to influence, the partial shutdown of the federal government. That can’t be blamed entirely for Cuccinelli’s low standing in the polls, but it certainly has hurt him by associating Republicans with a decision most Virginians oppose and quite a few feel hurts them personally.

Quinnipaic asked voters whether they or a family member have been personally inconvenienced by the partial shutdown. Overall, 25 percent said it had been a major inconvenience; 16 percent, a minor inconvenience. It’s not a partisan phenomenon: Among Republicans, 21 percent said it had been a major inconvenience, and 20 percent said it had been a minor one.

Another poll, by Christopher Newport University, found 20 percent saying the shutdown had affected them personally, 42 percent saying they knew someone who had been affected, and 12 percent saying both.

The government shutdown is probably hitting Virginia harder than any other state. Government spending, both civilian and military, is a huge economic factor in Virginia and goes well beyond the Northern Virginia suburbs. About 35,000 of the 73,000 people who live in greater Fredericksburg, approximately 50 miles from the nation’s capital, commute to D.C. and its suburbs for work each day.

Newport News Shipyards are still working — they’ve flooded the dry dock where the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier is nearly complete — but elsewhere in Newport News, a company that makes helmets for the military has laid off half its workforce. Norfolk Naval Base is no longer conducting tours, hitting the private company that ran them. The museum and settlement at Jamestown, the Yorktown Visitor Center, and Yorktown Battlefield are closed, although Colonial Williamsburg remains open. In Richmond, 200 part-time state-government employees will be furloughed or full-time employees will switch to part-time status.

The Pentagon’s decision to bring civilian workers back to work after the first couple of days of the shutdown will partially mitigate the economic impact. But Virginia Republicans may be among those least inclined to support a government shutdown on any scale. Politico’s poll, taken one week into the shutdown, found 51 percent of self-identified Republicans supporting a government shutdown in order to prevent funding Obamacare, while 41 percent of Republicans opposed. Overall, 62 percent of likely voters in Virginia opposed the maneuver, and only 31 percent supported it.

So the government shutdown represents a new, stronger headwind Cuccinelli must face — and he trailed in the race well before the shutdown dominated the headlines.

The story of the 2013 gubernatorial race looks to be a predictable and depressing one for Republicans: A wealthy Democrat took to the airwaves and destroyed his opponent’s reputation among a key demographic — women — before any real counterattack could get under way.

Cuccinelli led a few polls in early spring but began to trail in May — which is when the television advertising race really began. A Washington Post survey in May showed the two candidates evenly split among women. Now the same pollster shows a split of 24 points.

Polls taken since early summer have shown a brutal gender gap that would be impossible for almost any Republican to overcome. In the most recent Christopher Newport University survey, women prefer McAuliffe 51 percent to 37 percent. In Quinnipiac’s latest, the split is 53 percent to 34 percent. Roanoke College puts McAuliffe up 43 percent to 34 percent.

Between May and today, McAuliffe and his allies unloaded a barrage that the Cuccinelli campaign simply wasn’t prepared to counteract. The Virginia Public Access Project tracked the spending, week by week. Light red is the Republican party’s spending (primarily the Republican Governor’s Association) and dark red is Cuccinelli’s spending; light blue is Democratic-party expenditures and dark blue is McAuliffe’s spending:

McAuliffe crushed Cuccinelli for most of July, and fought to a standstill most of August and September. (The collection of data after October 1 is impeded by the shutdown’s impact on the Federal Elections Commission; the blue lines for the future represent reserved ad time.)

Then there are the outside groups: “$20.2 million from Democrats and affiliated outside groups to $12.7 million from the Republicans and their allies,” according to Politico.

McAuliffe’s relentlessly negative ad campaign targeted women early and often — suggesting that he sought to punish mothers “trying to get out of a bad marriage”:

Cuccinelli was also accused of trying to make “common forms of birth control illegal, including the pill.”

To a Republican, these are asinine, nonsensical accusations. Cuccinelli said he “wasn’t touching contraception as governor” and pledged that “if a personhood bill did reach his desk, he would delete anything that might affect contraception.”

The down-ticket races will provide intriguing evidence of how much of Cuccinelli’s weakness among women is a reflection of his being the subject of a widespread, sustained negative ad campaign and of how much the problem is one for Republicans as a whole. The GOP’s six-way race for lieutenant governor yielded E. W. Jackson, a pro-life African-American Baptist minister who is one part Alan Keyes, one part Mark Levin. He compared Planned Parenthood to the KKK and on Twitter called Obama “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, pro-Islam, anti-capitalist.” Yet a recent poll had him losing women 35 to 46 percent, not far behind Cuccinelli numbers, 37 to 51 percent.

Similarly, the statewide attorney-general’s race between Republican Mark Obenshain and Democrat Mark Herring has gotten barely a fraction of the coverage the Cuccinelli–McAuliffe race has. The most recent poll on the attorney-general’s race puts Obenshain within the margin of error, trailing 42 percent to 45 percent (and actually leading among registered voters). Female likely voters are split evenly between the two candidates at 45 percent each.

In short, when a Republican runs for statewide office in Virginia and isn’t carpet-bombed on the airwaves as the return of the Spanish Inquisition, he does fine. Unfortunately for Cuccinelli, some significant segment of Virginia women find it plausible that he would attempt to ban divorce or contraception.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.