Virginia Republican Gubernatorial candidate, Ken Cuccinelli has ranked consistently behind Democrat candidate, Terry McAuliffe in polls over the past few months. But 55 days out, political animals know that an eternity remains for Cuccinelli to make up the difference, which is exactly what he will do. Recent polls have McAuliffe up by 5-8 points. But this is a soft lead. Cuccinelli’s base support is strong while no one in the democrat camp is thrilled about McAuliffe. There are more than a couple of reasons to be confident of a Cuccinelli comeback over the coming (less than) two months.
1.) Cuccinelli has won NOVA voters over before
A population map of Virginia designating counties by the size of their population, rather than the physical size of the county presumably portends disaster for Republicans. It essentially shows that Virginia is made up of Northern Virginia, Tidewater/Coastal Virginia and the greater Richmond area, with little regard for the rest of us.
The entire rest of Virginia appears less imposing on a population map. Thus, it may make little difference that Cuccinelli will win the rest of Virginia. He will win Southwest, Central and Southside Virginia. What is important is how he will fare in the rest of the Old Dominion. Of the big three areas, Cuccinelli is poised to win the greater Richmond Area that is represented by Congressmen like Eric Cantor, and tilts Republican. Right now, it is neck-and-neck, but following the upcoming debate, Cuccinelli will be able to demonstrate some of his views on revitalizing schools and transportation – two winners in this central area.
Likewise, McAuliffe supporters should know that coastal Virginia is not a lock for either candidate. Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads, together, give the impression of a large metropolitan area that would tend to lean blue. But due to the high business interests, military bases and location in the South, this population center of close to two million Virginians has a tendency to oftentimes lean red. McAuliffe is a fish out of water in this coastal area and while I in no way want to downplay McAuliffe’s strength if he can link Cuccinelli to the Johnny Williams scandal and the Lieutenant Governor nominee, Cuccinelli is a natural fit for an area that Bob McDonnell won overwhelmingly in 2009.
Most importantly though, is the Northern Virginia Voter. This region represents over two and a half million Virginians and represents a third of Virginia’s population. While Northern Virginia certainly leans a strong democratic blue, it is important to remember that Ken Cuccinelli was elected to the State Senate from Fairfax County – the bluest of democrat counties in northern Virginia, bordering Washington D.C. The Attorney General often brags that he won two elections there while being significantly outspent by his opponents both times. Cuccinelli has roots in this area of the Commonwealth and it cannot be overlooked that he has won here before. His best case scenario is that he wins this part of the state. His worst case scenario is that he loses northern Virginia, but not by much. Remember, he has won here before and he will likely perform well here again. He doesn’t even have to win NOVA, which I would argue that he can win, but simply remain competitive against an unpopular candidate.
2.) National Democrats are faltering
There are two issues that will play out by the end of September. The first is President Obama’s plans for war. At this point, the moderate Virginia jury is still out on how Obama has handled the Syrian crisis. Vladimir Putin has embarrassed Obama with a plan to obtain Syria’s nuclear weapons. The likely outcome will be that Russia and Syria will claim that all of the chemical weapons have been handed over when in fact they have not been. Obama has (slowly) sinking approval ratings and the maxim that “all politics are local” don’t seem to be the case anymore, especially in Virginia where the governor’s race is always a bellwether verdict on the popularity of the White House resident.
The second issue coming up at the end of September is the defunding of Obamacare. Democrats want to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government along with additional funds for Obamacare. Conservative Republicans want to pass a CR that completely defunds Obamacare. Some Obamacare funding is “mandatory spending” meaning that it cannot be defunded procedurally through the CR process. Moderate Republicans want to hold the 33rd symbolic vote to undercut Obamacare while giving the President his CR. How this plays out could have a major impact on Virginia voters.
The President has been warning of a shutdown if he doesn’t get his way. Fortunately, this showdown doesn’t have anything to do with sequester or cutting existing funds, so Northern Virginian voters don’t have to worry about losing government contracts. This is essentially a power play to determine who is strong and who is weak in Washington D.C. If Democrats hold strong, an easier proposition since the President holds the Bully Pulpit and has effectively used it in the past, they will win this debate as Republican House leadership is too weak to whip its troops into line.
However, if House and Senate Republicans could stay (mostly) unified in its defunding effort, Republicans could break the President and begin the cresting of Republican victories in Virginia and New Jersey.
The worst case scenario for Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia is a Congress that gives in. Should vocal conservatives demand no Obamacare funding and the President in turn, shuts down the government, followed closely by moderate Republican leaders undercutting conservative efforts in making a deal with the President, conservative could face a backlash. That leaves them as unserious non-players or “obstructionists”, and like-it-or-not, Cuccinelli could be linked to their weakness.
On top of this, is the risk that an unsuccessful Obamacare rollout vindicates everything that Cuccinelli has been warning about for years while the converse makes him appear extreme. He could prove to be a prophet in his own time which will garner him enough votes to get to a majority. Cuccinelli was the first Attorney General opponent of Obamacare so its defeat and success is directly tied to his personal chances of winning and losing. Virginia politics will largely be national.
3.) Off-year elections favor the party out-of-power & most popular with the base
It is no secret that it has been decades since Virginia’s Governor’s mansion has gone to the same party in the White House. A second term president especially, favors Republicans this year. The major secret has been Cuccinelli’s popularity with the Republican base.
A recent survey showed that both candidates were under 35% approval. This is largely due to the negative ads being run on either side. But the unlikability is for different reasons. McAuliffe, really is unlikable. I haven’t met a single Democrat that is fired up about his candidacy. He has no ties to Virginia, he lost the nomination to a nobody four years ago and he offers nothing to get excited about. The people that worked the phones and knocked on doors for Obama are not excited to do the same for Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli’s unpopularity stems from the negative attack ads against him. And I don’t simply mean the $8 million in television ads run against him by the McAuliffe campaign. The entire media -- newspapers and national television, have made a mockery of the Attorney General and his social viewpoints. This is a guy that handed out gifts with both breasts covered on the state’s flag (Virginia has the only flag in the United States showcasing one naked female breast). He is a conservative man, and the media has had a field day painting him as an extremist. But personally, he is extremely likable, open to other points of view and an attractive family candidate.
But the best kept secret is that conservatives love Ken Cuccinelli. They absolutely love him. National media outlets, looking for news stories, eat up the fact that 30 Republican operatives have defected to the democrat party in Virginia. But little weight is given to the fact that in a primary poll over a year ago between the moderate Republican Bill Bolling and our Attorney General, Ken’s support was around 80% to 20% in the Republican Party. He was nominated overwhelmingly and the entrenched Republican class never got over it.
There may be some pro-choice, pro-tax Republicans that won’t vote for Ken, but there numbers are miniscule. Not all of Charlie Crist’s operatives signed on with the Rubio campaign. These things happen in intra-party squabbles, but I have never met a Republican personally that doesn’t like Ken Cuccinelli, this guy has a base of support that is strong, especially in an off-year election.
I do not possess enough inner-workings of sample polling data used in the most recent polls showing him behind, and I should also say that I never bought the Romney campaign's argument that Obama’s 2012 turnout numbers were off, but I have to wonder whether the turnout models are being assessed accurately. Which base will show up in 2013? Organizing for action Obama supporters are not excited about Terry McAuliffe's trial-run campaign in Virginia.
4.) Cuccinelli is focusing on the right issues
Ken Cuccinelli is obviously taking a beating in the Virginia and national media. He has been defined by his social conservative stances. There are groups that are seriously arguing that this current Attorney General and former state Senator from Fairfax County, wants to “ban oral sex between consenting adults.” The vitriol against Cuccinelli runs deep. But Cuccinelli hasn’t stated that he wants to be governor of Virginia to crusade against homosexuality. He hasn’t campaigned on an abortion abolitionist platform. And he certainly hasn’t alluded to banning different forms of sex. What the Attorney General has focused on is job creation, lower taxes and lowering energy prices.
This is not some zany social conservative candidate who is focused on things that Virginians don’t care about. This is someone who is focusing on making healthcare more affordable for Virginians while fighting for their civil liberties.
And the Cuccinelli campaign certainly is fighting. McAuliffe is Bill Clinton’s primary fundraiser who has spent millions this summer, attacking Cuccinelli for accepting a free Turkey Dinner (you’d have to see the commercial to believe it) while Cuccinelli has been unable to match the McAuliffe spending machine, they are coming close. This Attorney General is a candidate who knows how to win. He has won as an underdog many times before. Politico is reporting that his campaign is looking into unprecedented thirty minute ad buys in Virginia, a revolutionary idea for a regional candidate. Don’t count his message out yet.
5.) Virginians are paying attention and Ken Cuccinelli knows Virginia
McAuliffe has successfully used the Obama approach to define one’s opponent in the summer prior to the election. This summer has seen a race go from a tie, to a 5-8 point lead for the carpet bagging former DNC Chairmen with few ties to the Commonwealth. But since Labor Day, Virginians have begun paying attention. I have yet to meet a single Virginian that has watched one of the previous debates. That will change in two weeks. Virginians have failed to see how utterly unlikable Terry McAuliffe is. No one really grasps how little knowlege he possesses on Virginia issues. Few Virginians have seen McAuliffe’s embarrassing equivocations on the NOVA Bi-County Parkway. If this guy failed to surround himself with the right team, his tenure would be a disaster because he knows so little about Virginia.
Once Virginians get to know these two candidates, they will realize something about both of them. Virginians will realize that they like Ken Cuccinelli, he is an attractive, poised family man who graduated from UVA and George Mason and has made it his career to serve the people of Virginia. Ask Cuccinelli what he thinks about energy and he will talk you to death about policy regarding energy cooperatives, LEED certification of government buildings, nuclear, opting VA out of ethanol requirements, offshore drilling and reforming the Renewable Portfolio Standard. Ask him why he opposed Obamacare on its Constitutional underpinnings or about the costs and benefits it will have on Virginia and you will quickly find that this is not a Christine O’Donnell or Sarah Palin candidate, but a Constitutional scholar who has mastered the issues at hand.
This is a candidate that played a major role in curbing the state’s eminent domain power, fought on behalf of Virginia’s mentally ill, worked to prevent human trafficking, crack down on gang activity, prosecute Medicaid Fraud and has joined in the fight against bullying. This man can’t be defined by his social views.
Ken Cuccinelli knows Virginia and the upcoming debate will showcase that as it did in 2009.
McAuliffe on the other hand, does not have an articulable energy policy. He talks of carbon credits and climate change but avoids discussing Virginia’s rich history illuminated by coal-fired power plants. Since losing the Democrat nomination in 2009, McAuliffe has reversed his position on off-shore oil drilling and coal-fired power plants. Whether he will reverse himself again once coming to office remains to be seen. He supports this administration on issue, after issue and that may be something that even Obama can’t carry him past.
McAuliffe is a creature of the D.C. beltway. Prior to his campaign, he had never been to Danville or Abingdon Virginia. These shortcomings will reveal themselves soon. As Virginians begin paying attention, the Cuccinelli boom will ignite.