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An Overview of the Virginia Governor’s Race

Although the federal midterm elections are a little more than a year away, 2013 still features an intriguing Governors race. Virginia is interesting because it has become somewhat of a tossup state in recent Presidential Elections. This particular toss-up will provide a small window of what to look forward to in the 2014 midterm elections.

A Bit of History…

In 2008, Virginia turned blue for a Democrat for the first time since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson was running for election. President Obama carried the state in 2008 with 52% of the vote to Sen. John McCain’s 46%. In 2012, Mitt Romney was able to narrow the gap a bit in Virginia, gaining more votes than McCain, but he still lost the state.

However, the state has not experienced a total shift to a Democratic blue. In 2009, Governor Bob McDonnell (R) won the Virginia gubernatorial election to Creigh Deeds (D). McDonnell won the state by a 58%-41% margin. In 2010, the midterm elections saw the Virginia GOP knock off 3 incumbent Democrats. The Democrats were only able to keep 3 incumbent spots. The Democrats were not able to take back the the GOP gains from 2010 in 2012.

The main point to make here, looking at Virginia’s history, is that the gubernatorial election could give some insight into the federal races in Virginia and the country in 2014. Outside groups believe this as well, as millions of dollars are flooding into Virginia with interest groups field testing ideas for the 2014 races. The successful messaging wars in Virginia will tells us what both parties will be touting in 2014.

The Polls

The current Real Clear Politics average for Virginia has Terry McAuliffe (D) ahead by 4.2 points over Ken Cuccinelli (R), although Cuccinelli has spent the last month narrowing the gap in the race.

VA Gov race end of Sept

Another interesting dynamic in Virginia is the Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. Sarvis has, in several polls captured as much as 10% in the polls. The high level of support Sarvis is receiving likely tells us more that the public does not like either of the major candidates in the race. Cuccinelli has a favorable-unfavorable rating of 28%-42%, while McAuliffe has a rating of 27%-31%.

The latest Washington Post poll has McAuliffe ahead by 47 percent to 39 percent among likely voters, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis’s 10 percent suggesting an unrest among voters not satisfied with either major-party contender. In a one-on-one matchup without Sarvis in the mix, the poll shows a narrower, 49-to-44 percent race between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli among likely voters. NBC/Marist has McAuliffe ahead by the same margin.

Sarvis is also likely helped by a Virginia electorate that has become comfortable with voting libertarian in the 2012 primaries. Ron Paul took home 41% of the primary vote against Mitt Romney in Virginia (the other candidates could not get the required signatures to make it on the ballot). GOP voters unhappy with Romney are now likely willing to voice the same protest over Cuccinelli and McAuliffe by going with Sarvis. It’s also completely possible that the trend of Virginia to a blue state is more indicative of a libertarian streak developing in the Commonwealth. The national Libertarian Party has been covering this angle. Only election night will tell the true story…

The Ads

For those exhausted from the attack ads in Virginia, have heart. FactCheck.org had this to say: “There’s strident attack galore, but much of it is accurate”. This is in comparison to the onslaught of inaccurate ads from the Presidential season last summer.

First, an overall review from FactCheck on McAuliffe’s GreenTech and all the problems with it. Most of the attacks have merit. However, McAuliffe is off-base on attacks regarding ethics complaints against Cuccinelli.

Cuccinelli’s attacks on McAuliffe’s businesses have largely been on point. McAuliffe’s attacks on Cuccinelli’s stance on abortion are mostly correct, except Cuccinelli does not support abortion in all cases as McAuliffe is claiming. Cuccinelli supports exemptions in the cases of danger to the mother’s life.

McAuliffe has been making up problems with Cuccinelli’s tax plan (similar to attacks by Obama on Romney in 2012). McAuliffe appears to be trying the same playbook as the President when it comes to Cuccinelli.

And finally, McAuliffe’s attacks on Cuccinelli’s record on issues like abortion and an FBI raid have either been stretching the truth or just flat wrong.

The Press

The Hampton Roads Virginian Pilot has endorsed McAuliffe.

The Hampton Roads Daily Press is displeased with both candidates and encourages voters to find out as much as they could about their options.

The Roanoke Times echoed the Daily Press by saying that the candidates had earned the negative view voters had of them.

The Richmond Times Dispatch called McAuliffe an “unserious candidate” because he could not give a specific answer to any policy. They praised Cuccinelli’s ability to provide specific answers to questions and give plans for difficult issues facing Virginia. They also attacked McAuliffe and Cuccinelli’s ads, imploring both candidates to “Grow up”.

Fredericksburg called McAuliffe a “salesman trying to sell something” and that he needed to come clean about his companies.

Falls Church News-Press accused Cuccinelli of falling out of touch with Virginia voters.

WJLA ABC 7 spent time covering the McAuliffe campaigns self-inflicted wounds on the campaign trail.

The News and Advance of Lynchburg praised Cuccinelli for making the right call in not defending an unconstitutional educational reform.

The Washington Post criticized McAuliffe’s education plan for not making budgetary sense. They also went after GreenTech.

The Washington Times was critical of McAuliffe’s stance on Right to Work legislation.

The Washington Examiner came out against McAuliffe, urging Virginians to vote against McAuliffe’s crony capitalism.

USA Today penned a dismissive editorial towards both candidates. They also printed a letter indicating displeasure from Virginia residents about the attacks USA Today made on Cuccinelli.

Finally, for what it’s worth, the conservative Media Research Center did an analysis of all the coverage of the media in Virginia on the governor’s race and found that Cuccinelli was receiving more negative coverage than McAuliffe. They also found that Sarvis, while covered positively, was not being covered at all.

Closing Thoughts…

Voters should look at all candidates and go beyond the ads and coverage. The unfavorability ratings of Cuccinelli and McAuliffe indicate that negative press is driving the headlines. While attack ads have a lot to do with this, it also comes down to media coverage. The Media Research Center indicates that the press coverage of the two main candidates is highly negative, even more so on Cuccinelli. Any positive coverage of the Libertarian Sarvis is hidden in the middle of all the negative press or not covered at all.

The interest groups are heavily testing ideas and theories for the 2014 election season. McAuliffe is essentially running President Obama’s playbook on Cuccinelli. The attacks on Cuccinelli’s tax plan, war on women, and experience are nearly indistinguishable in rhetoric from President Obama’s attack ads on Romney. Democrats apparently believe that they have an Obama blueprint for the state of Virginia and will run it until they lose by it.

Turnout will be key. Non-Presidential election years see a nose-dive in participation. In 2008 and 2012, Virginia saw electorate turnout of 65.1% and 66.9% respectively. In 2009 and 2010, turnout plummeted to 35.6% and 39.1%. Unfortunately, for Cuccinelli, the Romney ground game in Virginia was sub-par in 2012. Cuccinelli will need to build off his own ability to network across the state while being outspent by the highly well connected McAuliffe. It’s also worth noting that 2013 does not feature a statewide federal senate race for the gubernatorial candidates to piggyback on. This could negatively affect turnout, particularly in north Virginia (near DC) and in south east Virginia (Virginia Beach/Hampton Roads area).

Finally, on a fun but statistically meaningless note: No candidate from the party of the sitting president has won a gubernatorial race in Virginia since 1973.


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