The Battle Awaits Cuccinelli
Virginia’s gubernatorial race is likely to be fought along geographic lines.

Virginia state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli


Jim Geraghty

Speaking at the state GOP’s “Advance” convention in Virginia Beach this weekend, state attorney general and expected gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli began threading the needle between his reputation as a tough fighter with unequaled social-conservative credibility and the economy-focused mantra of the man whose office he hopes to win, Bob McDonnell, who will leave office next year pursuant to Virginia’s one-term limit for governors.

“Virginia once again has an opportunity — this is an opportunity to show the country that conservatism isn’t dead, that it’s not old or worn out, and that it’s still alive and thriving!” Cuccinelli told a crowd of 650 activists.

He pointed to GOP gubernatorial wins in 1993, 1997, and 2009, arguing that in his state the death of conservatism is an oft-told, always-wrong story: “In 2008, the bottom fell out. Virginia went for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964. We were in trouble, we were on our way out, we were fading away. So what happened? We nominated what the other side and their media allies called ‘the most conservative ticket in Virginia history.’ Sound familiar? They recycled that press release again this week, and we’ll see it again in May regardless of who we nominate for lieutenant governor and attorney general.”

While it’s early and the outlines of the race are still taking shape, there’s reason to believe that the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race will be fought starkly along geographic lines. The two most recent winning Democratic gubernatorial candidates, NASCAR-sponsoring entrepreneur Mark Warner and former Richmond mayor Tim Kaine (now both U.S. senators), both won quite a few counties outside of Virginia’s cities — the county-by-county maps of those gubernatorial elections were evenly divided patchworks of red and blue.

The 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary put the geographic question before that state’s party, pitting state senator Creigh Deeds, who represented rural Bath County, against former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state delegate Brian Moran, who both have close ties to the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. The Washington Post editorial board surprised some by endorsing Deeds and made it rather explicit that it deemed Deeds to have the best shot at competing outside the more Democrat-heavy northern suburbs: “Virginia is still more purple than blue, and Mr. Deeds’s moderate platform would have the broadest appeal.”

But the choice appeared to backfire; Deeds carried few rural counties, and Bob McDonnell won by the widest margin (59 percent to 41 percent) of any Republican gubernatorial candidate in state history, performing remarkably well in Northern Virginia: He won Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudon, and Prince William counties. While McDonnell was winning at the top of the ticket, Cuccinelli was winning his position as attorney general by almost as wide a margin (58 percent to 42 percent) and doing almost as well in Northern Virginia, winning in Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and trailing slightly in Fairfax.

There is a theory among some Virginia Republicans that the Washington Post gives tougher and more unfair coverage to their statewide candidates than to national GOP figures; some wonder if the left-leaning reporters and editors are more tolerant of Republicans if they’re not running to represent the paper’s circulation area. The Post mentioned “macaca” in approximately 100 articles, op-eds, and editorials about the 2006 Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Jim Webb and provided similar swarm-of-bees coverage of McDonnell’s 21-year-old Regent University thesis in 2009.