Love him or hate him, Bill and Hill's buddy is the only thing standing between the state and a Tea Party governor
The race for governor of Virginia will be the marquee political contest of 2013, almost by default.
After all, Virginia and New Jersey are the only two governorships up next year, and the Garden State race is losing suspense by the day; Chris Christie is about as well-positioned for reelection as a Republican can be in his state. And the only other major election, for mayor of New York City, lacks the partisan edge of a typical statewide race and figures to be populated by a collection of low-wattage candidates. At least the outcome in Virginia, a swing state in presidential politics, could have national implications.
Already the race is shaping up as the first major test of Tea Party-style conservatism in President Obama’s second term. Ken Cuccinelli, who has used his attorney general’s post to challenge the Affordable Care Act, stick up for Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, and challenge the science of climate change, has cleared out the Republican field and his poised to secure the GOP nod without opposition. It helped Cuccinelli immeasurably that a state party committee had voted to award the gubernatorial nomination through a convention, where the small universe of delegates will be dominated by conservatives, and not a statewide primary. Cuccinelli’s convention strength was the reason Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, a less polarizing figure, recently backed out of the race.
In the wake of last month’s election, when Obama carried the state by nearly four points over Mitt Romney, there’s reason to suspect that Cuccinelli is a poor match for the Virginia of today. After siding with the GOP in every race from 1968 on, the state has now voted Democratic in two straight presidential elections, and Democrats have also won the last three U.S. Senate contests. A particular source of strength for Democrats has been the professional class in fast-growing northern Virginia, voters who don’t particularly mind the GOP on economic issues but are bothered by the party’s emphasis on exclusionary cultural themes. Cuccinelli seems particularly ill-suited to win these folks back to the Republican column.
Then again, he did manage to win the AG’s office three years ago, in the same election that brought Republican Bob McDonnell to the governorship in a landslide. Virginia Republicans were able to enjoy good – great, really – years in 2009 and 2010 because the composition of the electorate was much different. Turnout among African Americans and Latinos, which was through the roof in 2008 and 2012, fell dramatically, while conservatives trooped to the polls with great enthusiasm. To judge from the ’09 and ’10 results, you’d never have guessed that Virginia was in the throes of a red-to-blue transformation.
Which is why next year’s governor’s race is such an interesting test, with national implications. As in ’09 and ’10, Obama’s name won’t be on the ballot, so Democrats will need to turn out their core groups without him – something they’ve failed to do so far. If they manage to pull it off, though, it will be a very troubling sign for the GOP, an indication that the “coalition of the ascendant” has become the foundation of a new, more stable political majority. On the other hand, if a candidate as far to the right as Cuccinelli manages to win in a swing state next year, it will give Republicans hope for 2016. See, they’ll say, we don’t have to change too much to win in the battlegrounds.
Of course, Cuccinelli won’t be the only name on next fall’s ballot. It now looks fairly certain that his Democratic opponent will be Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chairman and close Clinton friend. McAuliffe’s obvious strength is in fund-raising, but beyond that he has an awful lot to prove. The last time he ran, in the 2009 Democratic primary, he raised and spent more than $8 million but finished a very distant second in the three-way race with just 26 percent of the vote. As Nate Cohn explained earlier this week, McAuliffe ran particularly poorly in northern Virginia, even though that’s his home base, and seemed to alienate Democrats as the campaign progressed.
But McAuliffe is nothing if not dogged, and he’s spent the three years since his defeat pressing the state’s Democratic establishment for a second chance. And it looks like he’s going to get his way. After briefly toying with a run, Mark Warner announced last month that he’d stay in the Senate, and just yesterday Tom Perriello – the former Democratic congressman who is something of a liberal folk hero – too his name out of the mix and endorsed McAuliffe. It shouldn’t be long now before all the state’s Democratic heavyweights are behind him.
From a general elections standpoint, Republicans could do a lot better than Cuccinelli and Democrats could probably do better than McAuliffe. But even if the star players are unusually flawed, Virginia will still be the race to watch in 2013.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- Developers evict historic women's shelter to build luxury hotel
- Guantánamo prisoner on hunger strike cries for help on Twitter
- 3 possible solutions to international tax avoidance
- “I just want the U.S. to send my father home”
- Army weapons engineer tied to white nationalist organizations
- Ted Cruz against the world
- David Vitter's hypocritical, punitive, horrible new amendment
- Louie Gohmert: Women should be forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term
- Could hackers destroy the U.S. power grid?
- Democrats may be even worse than Republicans at regulating Wall Street
- Eric Holder versus journalism
- A progressive defense of drones
- There's no substitute for government disaster relief
- Holder signed off on search warrant for reporter
- Mississippi could begin prosecuting women for miscarriages
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- Closing Gitmo is not enough
- Murkowski: Palin too disengaged to run for Senate
- In IRS scandal, new GOP tactic is ignorance
- Code Pink activist berates Obama at national security speech
- Cuomo: "Shame on us" if New York City elects Weiner
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.