It looks as if the makeup of next year’s Virginia governor’s race is set. GOP Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling dropped out yesterday, admitting he was unlikely to win a GOP convention against conservative favorite Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s hard-charging attorney general. The Democratic field also is now clear — former top Clinton fundraiser and businessman Terry McAuliffe will run again.
Expect the race to be a bitter one, with McAuliffe trying to frame it around Cuccinelli’s staunchly conservative social views and Cuccinelli trying to peg McAuliffe as a slippery operator who has had no experience in elected office.
Starting out, the race looks to be roughly even. The Quinnipiac poll out this week has McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by 41 percent to 37 percent among registered voters. But as the liberal blog Blue Virginia points out “usually what happens in off-year elections in Virginia is that the Democratic base tends to show in relatively lower numbers than the Republican base.” Thus, while President Obama narrowly carried Virginia this month, Republican Bob McDonnell won a 17-point victory in his race for governor just three years ago. McDonnell, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, never retreated from his socially conservative views. But he successfully pivoted to win over moderate voters with a clear plan to expand business opportunity and jobs in the state. To win, Democrats will have to motivate their base and deflect similar attempts by Cuccinelli to win over moderate voters. Watch for them to try to drive a wedge between Cuccinelli and Virginia’s growing immigrant population for what he describes as his efforts to “remove the economic incentives that encourage illegal immigration.”
Cuccinelli is a hated figure among the Left in Virginia for his efforts to reveal the details of global-warming research at the University of Virginia and to lead the fight against Obamacare. But they underestimate his straight-talking appeal with voters. In 2001 and 2005, he was able to win election twice to the state senate from a moderate district in Northern Virginia.
Both candidates are still relatively undefined in the minds of voters despite previous statewide campaigns. A full two-thirds of Virginia voters “haven’t heard enough” about Terry McAuliffe to have an opinion. And 45 percent of Virginians don’t have a fixed opinion of Attorney General Cuccinelli.
History is on the side of Republicans holding the governor’s mansion in Richmond. In the eight elections for the state’s top job since 1980, the party out of power in the White House has always won the Virginia gubernatorial election. The most common explanation offered by analysts is that independent voters take out their frustrations against the national party in power by voting to counterbalance them at the state level.
With the economy still weak and Obamacare still unpopular, Republicans have to hope that trend continues into next November’s election.