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Enmity And Ennui: Va. Governor's Race Inspiring Both

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli talks about the Supreme Court decision on the national health care law on June 28, 2012 in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli talks about the Supreme Court decision on the national health care law on June 28, 2012 in Richmond, Va.

Most Virginians say they approve of the job that first-term GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell is doing, suggesting he'd have a good shot at re-election when his term expires at the end of this year.

But it's one-and-out for governors in Virginia, the only state that doesn't allow its chief executive to serve consecutive terms.

That's left the state with a governor's race that has many voters shaking their heads and asking, "How did we end up with these two?"

"These two" are Democrat Terry McAuliffe, 55, a Clinton-era fundraiser extraordinaire and former Democratic National Committee chairman who got walloped in a party primary for governor in 2009; and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, 44, the state attorney general whose conservatism far outflanks most on the right of the political spectrum.

"We've got Bill Clinton's big-money man versus a social issues extremist," says the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato. The frank assessment may offend true believers, but resonates with a wide swath of Virginia voters.

There may be a third candidate. McDonnell's pick as his successor, Republican Lt. Gov. Bob Bolling, 55, suspended his campaign after the party decided to choose its candidate at a convention instead of holding a primary. The move favored Cuccinelli.

But Bolling has kept everyone guessing about whether he'll run as an independent.

This all in a state that President Obama has won twice, where changing demographics have created a true swing state, but where voters in recent history have picked a governor of the opposite party of the president.

"There's a history that the party that loses the White House wins the governor's race," says Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "And the electorate this year will be older and whiter than it was last year."

"That's why Cuccinelli has a shot," Brown says.

Disenchanted Voters

The results of two polls released this week reflected Virginia voters' current ennui, if not enmity.

Both early surveys found a close race — and something else: Voters don't much like Cuccinelli, and they don't know McAuliffe.

A Quinnipiac University poll had the two candidates essentially tied; a Public Policy Polling survey had McAuliffe up by 5 percentage points, but with 13 percent undecided.

Here's Cuccinelli's problem: Forty-five percent of those surveyed by PPP, a Democratic firm, said they had an unfavorable opinion of Cuccinelli.

As for McAuliffe, just over a quarter of those surveyed told PPP that they had an unfavorable opinion of him, but half said they weren't even sure what they thought of the guy, though this is his second run for governor.

The Quinnipiac poll found that 61 percent of those surveyed hadn't heard enough about McAuliffe to form an opinion.

McAuliffe Remains Mystery

"Nobody knows who he is," says Brown, the Quinnipiac pollster. "Activists might know McAuliffe, but Joe and Jill Sixpack don't."

Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAulliffe watches the Big East basketball tournament with former President Bill Clinton on March 11, 2010, in New York.
Henny Ray Abrams / AP
Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAulliffe watches the Big East basketball tournament with former President Bill Clinton on March 11, 2010, in New York.

Says Tom Jensen of PPP: "He has no long record of involvement in Virginia politics, he hasn't been in the trenches, and we have empirical evidence: He didn't do well in 2009."

What McAuliffe has managed this time around, Jensen says, is to clear the field. In 2009, he lost to Creigh Deeds by 23 points in the Democratic primary, finishing second in a three-way race.

The Virginia Public Access Project reported that, based on candidate spending reports, Deeds spent $14.49 per vote; McAuliffe spent $68.25 for each of his votes.

McAuliffe, who chaired Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, faces the renewed task of casting himself as of and for the state of Virginia, and with something to offer voters outside of corridors-of-Washington influence and a reputation as, to quote former Vice President Al Gore, "the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe."

Cuccinelli's Challenge

Cuccinelli this past week, during an appearance on a conservative radio program, suggested that going to jail may be an effective way to protest the contraceptives coverage requirements in the new health care law.

That surprised no one familiar with the former state senator.

As attorney general, he filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health care law. He signed on as a supporter of Arizona's stringent new immigration laws. He wrote an opinion asserting that sexual orientation should not be a protected class under anti-discrimination policies at state colleges and universities.

His challenges to climate science — and scientists — prompted The Washington Post to suggest that he's on an "anti-climate science crusade."

Cuccinelli, who opposes legalized abortion, once ordered official lapel pins that altered the state seal to cover the exposed left breast of a Roman goddess. He has supported efforts to revoke the 14th Amendment that gives citizenship to children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants, and has characterized homosexual "acts" as wrong.

Those positions "don't necessarily make him out of step with the people of Virginia," says Brown, of Quinnipiac, particularly the older, whiter electorate expected to show up at the polls in this off-year.

"Elections are based on the electorate, and they change every year," Brown says. The electorate this year will not be the one that elected Obama in 2012, or in 2008.

"It is true that Virginia demographics have changed to help Democrats, but mostly the changes have helped President Obama," he says.

Voting in off-year elections — not a presidential year, and not a midterm election year — is historically lower, and more dependent on party base turnout.

Virginia holds one of only two gubernatorial elections this year (New Jersey holds the other). Without Obama at the top of the ticket, the pollsters say turnout for McAuliffe among African-Americans and young voters will likely be markedly less than for Obama in 2012, and that the Republican electorate will likely be dominated by its most socially conservative voters.

Can Democrats motivate their voters to get out, even if they don't know much about — or care much about — their candidate?

"Democrats aren't necessarily in love with Terry McAuliffe," says PPP's Jensen. "But they might be motivated to vote against Cuccinelli."

"I anticipate it being an extremely close race, with early money on someone winning it by two points or less," he says. "Given that it's an off-year, and there's a Democrat in the White House, Republicans would have a clear advantage if they had a moderate running."

And, who knows, says Sabato, who else might get in the race — be it Bolling, or some deep-pocketed aspirant.

"I'm surprised that somebody else wouldn't run," he said, "it's a made-for-wealthy opportunity."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.