Elections often boil down to the lesser of two evils, but the race for governor in Virginia took it to an extreme. The Democratic nominee, Terry "the Macker" McAuliffe, was uncharismatic and inexperienced, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli was just far too extreme for such a purple state. For many Virginians, the 2013 election was a grim affair driven more by opposition to one candidate than actual support for the party’s slimy standard-bearer.
Turnout was high, but energy was low, and money flowed like the Chicago River (oozy, filthy, various shades of green) into the state while voters trudged to polling sites. We’ve been experiencing fewer election night surprises over the years as polling improves, but last Tuesday raised some eyebrows. Polls showed McAuliffe leading by up to 10 points, but after the returns had come in, Cuccinelli, thought by even Republicans to be dead in the water, came within a hair’s breadth of defeating McAuliffe, and the generally-irrelevant Libertarian Party also showed up in surprising force (relative to their usual 1 percent of the vote, that is).
Although Chris Christie and Bill de Blasio might have taken up most of the political oxygen that night, the race in Virginia deserves a look as well, to see what exactly caused such a surprise result in one of the dreariest races in the country, and whether the unexpected strength of the conservative Cuccinelli is a sign that the GOP really can routinely win in purple states with deep red nominees.
Terry McAuliffe was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s, a position he won almost entirely due to his near-superhuman fundraising ability. As a Democratic operative, he went to endless lengths in order to squeeze out a few million more from reluctant donors, and that ability transferred to the governor’s race as well. McAuliffe outraised his Republican counterpart by roughly $10 million, with much of that money going into advertising.
Aside from his skills of bringing in oodles of cash, McAuliffe’s record was not only unsubstantial, but reeked so much of Washington that even Newt Gingrich could have run against him as an outsider. His outsize personality made his campaign style more reminiscent of a spokesman for an insurance company than of a leader, and his record of “creative exaggeration” was mocked even by Democrats like Bill Clinton. Oh, and that aforementioned fundraising ability? It occasionally involved doing things like leaving his wife in the delivery room to go rake in cash, and then going and taking his newborn son to another fundraiser on the way back from the hospital. Seriously.
Even if you’re willing to look past his knack for doing literally anything for a dollar, you’d find … well … not much. McAuliffe’s recent career, with the exception of his failed gubernatorial bid in ’09, is pretty much nothing but a glorified money magnet. As candidates went, the Macker was dreadful, and in a state like Virginia, a half-decent Republican could have wiped the floor with him.
Fortunately for the DNC, the Republicans were determined not to let that happen. Their nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, might have tried to turn the race into a referendum on Obamacare at the last minute. But most voters, along with liberal-aligned news groups such as ThinkProgress, never got over the image of him as a Tea Party extremist who wanted to enact a social agenda that would send Virginia spiraling back in time to the 1950s.
If this message could be successful against a historically moderate Mitt Romney in 2012, it was even more effective against an avowed lifelong conservative and non-flip-flopper like Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli could never shed the “too conservative” label, and as he dug himself deeper and deeper by unabashedly aligning himself with the far right of his party. With lovable statements like comparing immigrant families to families of rats, national Republicans lost interest in favor of the all-but-unloseable governor’s race a couple states north in Jersey.
According to former Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a six-term Republican who was himself toppled by a Tea Party-backed candidate in 2012, Cuccinelli's surprising overperformance on election night was less a sign that far-right candidates could still win in purple states like Virginia and more about what was happening nationally. Lugar was dismissive of Cuccinelli’s electability, instead giving most of the credit for his last minute surge to national trends.
“Many feel the race became close because of Obamacare and the tremendous unhappiness of the public with regards to the Democratic Party generally," Lugar said.
Clearly, anger towards national Democrats can succeed, as it did for many Republicans in 2010, but social issues still carried the day for McAuliffe. Cuccinelli’s social crusades helped win him the nomination, but for the general electorate – especially female voters – they were net negatives. To Lugar, it was about numbers.
“Cuccinelli was very adamant about his beliefs and went out of his way perhaps to indicate the strength of his opinions on so-called women’s issues," Lugar said. "That made it very difficult in terms of the arithmetic to get to a majority.”
In addition, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis wound up winning over 6 percent of the vote, one of the best performances of any Libertarian in a governor’s race in history. Among young voters, his numbers were even more impressive – in exit polls conducted by the New York Times, Sarvis got 15 percent of voters under 30. Although Sarvis cut into both major party candidates’ bases, it is likely that this exodus of typically left-leaning younger voters was another factor partially responsible for McAuliffe’s underperformance.
Some Republicans have pointed to the close loss in Virginia as a sign that Tea Party candidates aren’t necessarily unelectable, as long as the Republican establishment throws its full support behind them. They shouldn’t. A weak Democratic nominee, the Affordable Care Act’s disastrous website rollout, and a third-party candidate winning a fairly large share of the young vote were the only things that kept them competitive – factor that they cannot rely on in the future. If the Republican Party is to find a way forward, their near-win in Virginia is not a model they should follow.