Does Virginia hate Terry McAuliffe?

GOP chose a hard-liner for governor in a state that went for Obama. So why isn't the Democrat running away with it?

Published June 3, 2013 2:30PM (EDT)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe        (Reuters/Chris Wattie)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (Reuters/Chris Wattie)

Pity Virginians. While the rest of the country is still getting over the 2012 presidential campaign, the commonwealth is heading into what promises to be a bruising 2013 gubernatorial campaign between two candidates whom voters don't particularly like much, and it will be front and center as one of the most attention-getting elections in the country.

The state voted for Obama in 2012 and 2008, and has two Democratic senators, so it should be a pretty easy pickup for Democrats, right? Not so fast. Instead, it's just a slim Democratic lead, with the big joke in Richmond being that this is a contest between two guys who cannot win. On the Republican side, this makes some sense, as they nominated Attorney General Ken Cuccinnelli, one of the most extreme conservatives in the country, in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state. So why aren't the Democrats running away with it? Is it something about Virginia, or Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe?

"Nobody likes either of them," said Norman Leahy, a conservative analyst and the editor of the Virginia political blog BearingDrift, referring to both nominees. "If the election were held today, I think you could make a strong case for 'none of the above' doing pretty well as a write-in candidate."

That assertion is supported by a new PPP poll released Wednesday, which found that despite the fact that he's politically moderate, and mostly in step with his state's electorate, McAuliffe's negative rating exceeds his positive one. With Cuccinnelli in the same predicament, the race is shaping up to be a battle between two contestants whose paths to victories rely on tearing down the other guy in an attempt to be the lesser of two evils.

It's not hard to see Cuccinnelli's challenge: He's an arch-conservative well to the right of the purple state he's trying to govern, especially on social issues. Meanwhile, his running mate, GOP lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson, is so right-wing that he makes Cuccinnelli look like the drum major of a gay pride parade. Democrats call them the "extreme dream team."

But on the other side is McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and operator, who would seem to have an easy advantage. One explanation for his predicament is that he lost an ugly gubernatorial primary in 2009 that served to drive up his negative ratings and air a lot of dirty laundry. "He has that look to him of somebody like a used car salesman," Leahy said. "He says he wants to make a great deal for you, but really he's trying to get the best thing he can for himself and it doesn't matter what kind of clunker he puts you in."

"Democrats would have preferred another candidate this year, but their bench is empty," Larry Sabato, the longtime political analyst at the University of Virginia, told Salon. "In a normal year, you would write him off. He would have lost in a landslide in 2009."

Democrats' two strongest candidates, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are both in Senate seats that they're not eager to give up, though Warner did seriously consider it this time. "If Mark Warner had decided to leave the Senate and run for governor, this race would be over," said a Virginia Democratic consultant who asked not to be named. Tom Perriello, the former congressman who now heads the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, passed on a gubernatorial run in December. He may have been a stronger candidate, but mostly it would have been a different race, between two ideological candidates at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Instead, the candidate is McAuliffe, and Republicans' strategy is clear. "Cuccinelli knows he's going to be labeled as an extremist. So his best bet is to make McAuliffe completely unlikable and untrustworthy and sleazy," a Virginia Democrat who asked not to be named told Salon.

After attention was drawn to passages from McAuliffe's memoir revealing that he left his wife in the car to attend a political fundraiser -- on the way home from the hospital where she had just given birth -- Salon's Alex Pareene called McAuliffe a "soulless political animal with no redeeming human characteristic." People who know McAuliffe say he's actually quite generous and kind in person, but has difficulty translating that on the stump.

It may be quotes like the one he gave Vanity Fair that present him as not exactly relatable. He said his wife “has no idea” how much money he has: “She’s got a great life. Listen, her credit cards are paid and all that. She knows I do very well.”

In McAuliffe's defense, while Virginia is trending blue, tipping toward Obama in 2008 and 2012, it's hard for Democrats to win in non-presidential years, because turnout is usually much lower. "Each campaign has a fundamental question," Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant who has worked on several high-profile campaigns in the state, including McAuliffe's 2009 bid, but is not affiliated this year, told Salon. For McAuliffe, the question will be: Can he turn out the voters who helped elect Obama, especially in the suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond? His biggest risk is that Democrats stay home.

Cuccinelli, on the other hand, starts off with the advantage in a low-turnout race because his base is fired up by their uber-conservative nominee, Elleithee said, but his question is: Can he and Jackson convince those suburban and exurban voters that they are not extreme? "Those voters do not like ideologues," Elleithee said in an interview.

That's a tall order for the two Republicans, considering their record. Thus, McAuliffe's mission is to paint Cuccinelli as an extremist, both to turn off independents and to fire up his base, while Cuccinelli's goal is to try to get Democrats to stay home by making McAuliffe unlikable. That, along with the fact that there are few other major elections this year, will translate to millions and millions of dollars spent on ads attacking each other --which will only serve to drive up negative ratings of both candidates, drive down voter turnout and make it harder for whoever wins to claim a mandate.

"Rarely does a race like this come along. It will be acidic," Sabato said.

Still, it's early yet. Almost 40 percent of the electorate still doesn't have an opinion of McAuliffe, giving him a big opportunity, while a quarter are still unsure about Cuccinelli. Right now, McAuliffe is ahead by 5 percentage points, but all eyes are on the June 11 Democratic primary, where McAuliffe will be formally nominated and find out who will be running alongside him in the lieutenant governor and attorney general slots.

Those races will be key to building out the Democratic bench in the future -- whoever gets nominated to face off against Jackson is expected to cruise to victory. Which means Virginians might actually get some candidates they like next time.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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