A Hard Road for Cuccinelli

by Betsy Woodruff
The prospects for the gubernatorial candidate are dim, but not nil.

Things could look brighter for Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s attorney general and Republican gubernatorial nominee. You don’t have to be Nate Silver to figure out that the last few months’ polls have largely been bad news for him, ranging from not-optimal (not trailing as badly as he had been!) to apocalyptic. But Virginia Republicans are holding out hope, and conversations with a range of the Commonwealth’s political insiders show a broad consensus about the AG’s prospects: His chances of victory, while bleak, aren’t nonexistent.

Here’s a potential path, as laid out by onlookers:

First, insiders who spoke with National Review Online concurred that a low turnout would be great news for the Republican candidate. “If turnout is under 40 percent and around 30 percent, then Cuccinelli could be the next governor,” says one Virginia GOP operative.

Another Republican insider says that the working theory has been that the lower the turnout, the better. Both campaigns have drawn criticism for running negative ads — most recently when the Roanoke Times refused to endorse anyone in the contest, saying the tone of the election had been one of “sordid filth” — but this kind of messiness could be a boon for Cooch, because negative campaigns typically result in lower voter turnout

Cuccinelli’s supporters are much more devoted than Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s, adds one Old Dominion operative. “That’s always been the theory of the case, even going back to March,” says the operative, “is that these voters are more motivated, they love Cuccinelli, they will vote for him come Hell or high water. Whereas McAuliffe voters are a mile wide and an inch deep.”

And Charles Judd, the chairman of the Virginia Board of Elections, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 27 that he expects turnout to be 30 percent or less because of “apparent voter apathy,” which means a real opening for Cuccinelli.

The disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act could also be a bonus for the Cuccinelli campaign.

“Let’s suppose that Cuccinelli pulls off the upset,” says Larry Sabato, big-deal political analyst and professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “It really can only have come about in this way: They have chosen to focus on Obamacare at precisely the moment when the rollout disaster was unfolding.”

The president will be appearing at a get-out-the-vote rally in Northern Virginia on Sunday, according to Politico, at the end of a week dominated by stories about the failures of his signature domestic-policy legislation. Even if frustration with Obamacare doesn’t convert any would-be McAuliffe voters, it could still keep them at home.

Sabato says McAuliffe might have opted for a differently timed Obama rally if he’d known the Affordable Care Act would be getting such bad press. “One wonders if that would have happened had they realized that Obamacare would be topics A, B, and C nationally at this time,” he says. “That would be how it would go — the Democratic-vote turnout would be depressed and the Republican-vote turnout would be enhanced, and that’s how you score an upset. I mean, it does happen from time to time.”

Then there’s the Sarvis factor. The nominally libertarian gubernatorial candidate, Robert Sarvis, has been polling comparatively well — high enough that, according to some polls, we’d have a real horse race if all his supporters became Cuccinelli converts. So, naturally, Virginia Republicans hope that happens. Cuccinelli has a rally with Ron Paul scheduled for Monday (and he has won the former presidential candidate’s endorsement). But that’s a lot of hope, and not necessarily well founded — there’s no way every Sarvis voter is a would-be Cooch fan. Instead, it looks likelier that two-thirds of the Libertarian party candidate’s supporters have the attorney general as their Plan B.

Another issue for the campaign, oddly enough, is the situation in southwest Virginia. Romney won the state’s ninth congressional district (the “Fighting Ninth”) by 63 to 35. But a Virginia political insider tells NRO that a private, nonpartisan poll taken in the last few weeks shows Cuccinelli with only 55 percent of the votes in the district, and McAuliffe at 45 percent. For southwest Virginia, that’s an astonishingly small margin — Romney won multiple counties in the district with more than 70 percent of the vote, and it’s hard to imagine a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Cuccinelli underperforming the progenitor of, cue scare quotes, “Romneycare” — but other observers tell us that those numbers pass the smell test. McAuliffe has dramatically outspent Cuccinelli in the district, with a barrage of attack ads charging that the attorney general’s office helped an energy company rip off land-owners in the region.

The poll my source cited was taken a few weeks ago, and it seems unlikely Cuccinelli’s margin of victory will stay that small on Election Day. But his campaign is banking on a high turnout from deep-red parts of the state, and if McAuliffe manages to hamstring that effort, things might not be pretty for the GOP on November 5. “It’s been a challenge,” says a Republican state operative, “because the McAuliffe campaign has been willing at every turn to use blatantly false negative advertising.”

That said, a big win in the southwest probably wouldn’t by itself be a game-changer for Cuccinelli.

“Virginia’s kind of become Illinois,” says one operative. “You can look at a map and somebody can do great over the entire state, and then you just have Cook County and Chicago, and be like, ‘Oh. They lost.’ It’s not as exaggerated as that, but it’s the same general principle.”

Not everyone is that pessimistic. Will Estrada, who runs Home School Legal Defense’s PAC, says Generation Joshua (an organization that recruits home-schooled high-schoolers to volunteer for conservative candidates) is sending 400 volunteers around the state for get-out-the-vote efforts in the last few days before the election. “Republicans are incredibly energized right now,” he says, citing frustration over the Affordable Care Act.

Bear in mind that this represents Old Dominion Republicans’ rosiest view on how the next few days could go. If Cuccinelli wins, it will be an upset, and upsets don’t happen often. But, assuming there’s a mass defection of Sarvis supporters, a piddly turnout, and a high level of anger over the Affordable Care Act — well, a path to victory is conceivable. Unlikely, but within the realm of possibility.

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley fellow at the National Review Institute.