Sunday, November 03, 2013

Virginia Governor Election

Virginia Governor

Status: Republican Open

2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (South)

Prediction: Leans Democrat

The premiere contest of Election 2013 this coming Tuesday will be the contest for Governor in the Old Dominion. It is clearly the closer of the two Gubernatorial elections in this political off-year, but that may be somewhat relative, as the Democrat candidate is believed to have a solid and sustainable advantage in what is one of the most politically competitive states in the nation.

If Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins on Tuesday, it will end a streak of over 40 years, which has seen the party that had just been defeated in the White House race a year earlier, take the Governorship of Virginia. For some time now, Republicans have been very disappointed about a missed opportunity in this race, while Democrats are ready to pounce on a victory as a sign of GOP distress across the nation. Like most statewide elections though, there are always other factors involved.

McAuliffe is a millionaire businessman who was one of the closest political associates of Bill and Hillary Clinton, going back many years. After the Clinton Administration, he served as chairman of the DNC and was known for relentless political spin and brash partisan attacks. While he was quite successful in raising money for his party, few at that point considered the liberal native New Yorker to have much chance of ever having a future in elective politics in his adopted state of Virginia. Nonetheless, in 2009, McAuliffe ran for Governor and easily lost a primary to a candidate who went on himself to be thumped in a general election.

After Democrat Senator and former Governor Mark Warner passed on a return attempt to Richmond, Republicans were believed to have the advantage in the 2013 Gubernatorial contest, especially after Barack Obama was reelected, and other Democrats in the state proved reluctant to take on McAuliffe and his political warchest. Thus, despite being seen as a polarizing and weak political figure, McAuliffe received his party's nomination for Governor without a primary challenge.

The path to the Republican nomination was far less smooth and much more troublesome for the party. The longtime frontrunner for the nomination had been Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, who had deferred four years previous in the name of party unity to Bob McDonnell. Now, Bolling had the support of McDonnell, who while quite popular in the state at the time, was in eligible to seek a second consecutive term under Virginia law. However, the state's only other elected constitutional office, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was also interested in becoming Governor and was not willing to stand aside for Bolling.

While he had experienced previous statewide electoral success, Cuccinelli was seen as a weaker candidate for the GOP by virtue of his more vocal conservatism, especially on social issues (which is not to say that Bolling is also not a conservative.) With a divisive primary campaign looming, the situation became worse for Bolling when the state party opted to hold a nominating convention instead of a primary election. Bolling, who was running behind the higher profile Cuccinelli in the polls, might have had a chance of victory in a primary, but looked to stand little chance in winning enough delegates in a convention that was likely to have far more influence by Tea Party activists.

In late November, Bolling announced he would not seek the GOP nomination, all but ensuring a path to the general election for Cuccinnelli. However, he did not appeal to party unity by endorsing the man who had stood in the way of his own ambition, but openly considered the possibility of running as an Independent candidate for several months. While some believed that Bolling could potentially win the Governorship as a centrist alternative to the major parties, the most likely outcome was that a split Republican vote would all but deliver the Governorship to the Democrats. Ultimately, Bolling ruled out a third party bid, to the relief of Republicans, but has never endorsed his party's nominee.

A McAuliffe vs. Cuccinelli general election was expected to be a very close and nasty affair between two candidates with many political weaknesses. With both of these alternatives unsatisfying to many Virginians, there have been far stronger than expected poll numbers for Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis, a lawyer and businessman. While Sarvis will easily finish in third place on Tuesday, polls have shown him approaching 15 percent of the total vote. There is no doubt that he can play spoiler in the election and there is a case to be made forhow his presence is hurting both major party nominees. Ultimately, the winner on Tuesday is going to be victorious with under 50 percent of the vote, because of Sarvis, but it remains to be seen if he will receive as much support at the actual polls than he is in public opinion polls. If past political history, including in Virginia, is any guide, Sarvis is likely to do several points worse than his polling numbers would indicate. That is a factor that could make the result between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli to be somewhat unpredictable, and is what Republicans are hoping for, considering the lead outside of the margin of error that the Democrat has held for some time.

Turnout in the state is expected to be very low, due in large part to the tone of the campaign and unhappiness with the choices present. Some newspapers in the state have taken the odd step of endorsing nobody in the contest for Governor. McAuliffe is seen as a somewhat shady character with questionable past business dealings and not much of a specific positive agenda for the state. I think it is fair to say that if Bolling or many other Republicans had been nominated to oppose him, McAuliffe would be looking at a very likely defeat.

However, the problems for Cuccinnelli and the GOP in general in the state have snowballed to such an extent that victory looks like an uphill battle. The Commonwealth of Virginia is not as conservative on social issues as it used to be and Democrats have gone to great lengths (and with a substantial financial edge) to paint Cuccinelli as an extremist on issues such as abortion. This has given McAuliffe a wide lead among women in the polls. The situation for the Gubernatorial nominee was not helped by the fact that the same convention that nominated him without major opposition, chose for Lt. Governor, (which is voted separately), a very socially conservative, African-American minister, with a penchant for saying controversial things. The Democrats are expected to win that race, although polls show a ton of undecided voters for the lower profile election. The one real hope for the GOP in the state might be the party's candidate for Attorney General, who seems to be in a Tossup race.

Compounding the problems for Cuccinnelli since he became the GOP candidate, is the fact that incumbent GOP Governor Bob McDonnell has seen his popularity decline. Once a rising star in the party, and someone considered a strong contender for national office, McDonnell had been implicated in a scandal that involved improper gifts and spending involving his family during his term as Governor. McDonnell seemed to have avoided the brouhaha that involved talks of resignation, impeachment, or indictment, but none of this situation was helpful to Cuccinnelli, whom Democrats also tried to link to the gifts scandal. Currently, McDonnell's approval ratings in the state appear to be reasonably good (probably slightly higher than that of Obama in Virginia today) and higher than that of Cuccinnelli. Thus, if he loses, it is unlikely to be due heavily to any difficulties related to an association with the McDonnell Administration.

All of these matters have combined to make political life difficult for Cuccinelli, but the most significant problem he has had in this campaign may be due to the national party and the recent government shutdown. Virginia obviously has a lot of federal employees, who were temporarily put out of work, and Congressional Republicans were assessed much of the blame for the situation. While it is far too early to declare that any GOP Members of Congress (whether they wanted to shut the government down or not) have been politically harmed beyond repair by the ordeal, it is clear that Cuccinneli, by virtue of his state and the immediacy of his election, has been hurt by that association, just because he is a Republican.

Since the shutdown has ended, polls seem to indicate that Cuccinnelli, while still behind, has made up some ground on McAuliffe, as the resolution of the "crisis" has allowed more people in the state to focus on the race. Indeed, much of the political talk across the nation over the past couple of weeks has been very bad for Democrats, involving the rollout of Obamacare involving the perpetually defective website and the revelations that millions of Americans have been told they are losing their current insurance plans because of Obamacare. This has been seen by many, even by some in the media, as proof of a concerted campaign of lying on behalf of Obama and his Administration to pass and later defend his health care plan. Nonetheless, Obama visited Virginia today to campaign for McAuliffe. That appearance is likely to drive up turnout for the party's base, but may wind up hurting truly undecided voters. Cuccinelli, who was the first Attorney General in the country to sue over Obamacare has been playing up his opposition to the federal law during the campaign's closing days. Either his campaign feels they have a successful issue to run on here or it is a last ditch attempt to try to get back into the race.

In thinking about this election, I think it is a situation where if the campaign had another two weeks or so to go, momentum might shift enough to put Cuccinnelli ahead. However, Election Day is coming and for the GOP, it might be a situation of a comeback being just a little too little and a little too late.

If most polls are accurate, McAuliffe is likely to win solidly, and perhaps even by double digits. However, the turnout factor leaves many questions open. In the past couple of days, some polls have shown considerable tightening in the state, with one even showing a virtual dead heat. Republicans across the country would very much wish for that to be true.

While he is clearly an underdog, I do not think it is impossible that Cuccinnelli may pull off an upset. If that were to happen, it would involve the candidacy of Sarvis doing far worse than polls have indicated or that he will somehow wind up taking more votes from McAuliffe. That may very well prove to be the case, but that alone is likely not enough. However, if turnout is very low, conservatives and Tea Party activists, who may be energized to oppose McAuliffe, and perhaps more significantly Obamacare, could play a much larger role on Election Day than polls expect. Democrats have a huge money advantage in this race though and at least in 2012, their ground game in Virginia and other close states were superior to that of Republicans.

I will be hoping for an upset in this race, but my hunch is that McAuliffe will win by about five points, which would be closer than most polls have shown. Whomever wins, will not be eligible to run again in four years, and that is probably a good thing, because either man is probably going to have a rough ride as Governor.

If this goes as expected, it will be a disappointing result for Republicans like myself, but at least we have seen this coming for several months now. When the dust clears, we can look at a variety of factors in Washington D.C. and Virginia that coincided to hurt our party's candidate. We can also ask whether he really should have been the candidate to begin with and whether those in the party who opposed his candidacy did the whole party, and the state, a disservice  by not uniting behind him nonetheless.

Terry McAuliffe may be unpopular with many in his state, but in politics, it's better to be lucky than liked.

Cuccinnelli campaign link: