Unpopular candidates, chaotic campaign take Virginia from bellwether to sideshow

National Journal

The governor's race in the consummate swing state of Virginia is increasingly looking like a fluke rather than a bellwether with national implications for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

That's a reversal from 2009, when victories by Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie in the off-year gubernatorial races were widely seen as harbingers of the full-throated backlash against President Obama in the 2010 mid-terms.

But in 2013, the popular Christie is coasting to reelection against a little-known Democratic challenger, while Virginia's race features two candidates so personally unpopular that the politics are practically irrelevant. "We can't remember a race between two candidates with such low personal favorabilities," declared the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies, which found only 24 percent of Virginians have a favorable view of Democrat Terry McAuliffe and 29 percent have a favorable impression of Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Even partisans don't embrace them; only 53 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans view their own nominees favorably.

"Bellwethers are indicated when you have candidates who are better representative of national forces, and here you have two extremely damaged candidates," said pollster Doug Usher, who conducted the survey. "It's hard to say there are national dynamics when these are candidates neither party wants to have. It's clearly a candidate-centered race, and most of what voters are seeing is negative and personal in nature."

Pollster Pete Brodnitz, who advised McAuliffe in 2009 and worked on Democrat Tim Kaine's successful statewide campaigns in 2005 and 2012, noted that although Cuccinelli has positioned himself as a leading critic of Obama's controversial health care law, his campaign's ads are largely aimed at trashing McAuliffe's business record. When Cuccinelli has tried to nationalize the race, as he did when he came out against Obama's plan for military strikes in Syria, McAuliffe resisted by declining to take sides.

"I really don't think the race is a bellwether indicative of larger trends this year," Brodnitz said. "It's a very personalized race about their backgrounds, and they're not really debating larger philosophical issues. It's unique in that way."

Voters getting information about the race from television ads are seeing McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, cast as a sleazy businessman and power broker, and Cuccinelli, the sitting attorney general, portrayed as a right-wing ideologue.

The unusually personal nature of the race, however, hasn't stopped the national parties from seeking a mandate. Out-of-state money has poured into the race. Outraised by McAuliffe, Cuccinelli is increasingly relying on the fundraising prowess of national Republican figures and the Republican Governors Association. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is scheduled to headline a reception for Cuccinelli on Monday; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is on deck Tuesday.

"Whether you live in Virginia or not, what happens there matters a great deal for every conservative in America," Rubio wrote in a fundraising appeal. "If we can elect a real conservative like Ken in a purple state like Virginia, it will be an important step toward showing the nation that conservative ideas can triumph anywhere."

But conservative ideas—or liberal ones, for that matter—have had little bearing on this chaotic campaign. Both candidates have sought to put jobs at the forefront—McAuliffe has even visited all of the state's community colleges—but personal attacks have drowned out policy debates.

Consider the past week: Cuccinelli sought to defuse questions about his ties to the chief executive of Star Scientific by announcing in an online video that he had donated the value of the gifts, $18,000, to charity. (The businessman's relationship with McDonnell, whose family has received tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts, is under federal investigation.) One day later, Cuccinelli's top adviser, Chris LaCivita, distributed a memo to the press complaining about "a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny" and urging the media to bear down on a probe concerning foreign investment in McAuliffe's former electrical-car company.

The following day, the Republican Party called on McAuliffe to return a 2009 donation from a D.C. businessman linked to an illicit turnout drive for Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign.

"It's almost like a weird, special election for the House," Usher said. "It's not like if McAuliffe wins you can say everything is going great for Democrats or if Cuccinelli wins it means curtains for their majority in the Senate."

Still, it's undeniable that Virginia voters are heavily influenced by national politics, electing governors from the party outside the White House since 1977. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll pegged disapproval of Obama's job performance at 52 percent, the highest number in a year. In the same poll and other recent public surveys, about 60 percent said the country is going on the wrong direction.

"Most Americans don't think Obama is going a good job or like where Democrats are taking us, and that's going to influence their view of McAuliffe," argued Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who has surveyed the state extensively. "I don't think the average voter sees a lot of difference between Terry McAuliffe and the Clintons and Barack Obama. If Cuccinelli wins, I think it's a good indicator for Republicans in 2014."

First lady Michelle Obama headlined an event for McAuliffe in June, and Hillary Clinton is scheduled to appear on his behalf on Sept. 30.

While any national implications of the race will take time to shake out, the polling does reach one inescapable conclusion: the Republican Party continues to have trouble appealing to women. In the Purple Strategies poll, McAuliffe led Cuccinelli by 18 percentage points among women. That's the same size of the gender gap in a potential 2016 matchup between Clinton and Christie. Women prefer Clinton over GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another possible presidential candidate, by 16 percentage points.

"The gender gap was one of the big problems for Republicans in 2012," Usher said, "and there's little indication that persistent gender gap is going away."

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