One to Watch: The Virginia Governor's Race

PHOTO: Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli
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Terry McAuliffe has spent most of his time in politics helping the Clintons, and other members of his party, raise money and run for national office. His own political career has been less successful, although now he seems to have a clear shot at the Democratic nomination for governor in Virginia.

Barring any surprises, next year McAuliffe will be up against Ken Cuccinelli, the anti-Obamacare crusader who in a short time as Virginia's attorney general has galvanized conservatives by challenging the national health reform law and prodding the state's university system over climate change, as well as waging high-profile battles against abortion rights.

Neither man is yet a household name, but Virginia's status as a key battleground state makes the governorship there a launching pad to a national profile. Bob McDonnell, the current Republican governor, was considered a top vice presidential contender for Mitt Romney. Tim Kaine, now the state's junior senator, was chairman of the Democratic party, as was McAuliffe.

But statewide officeholders in Virginia have a tendency to be more moderate. Neither McAuliffe nor Cuccinelli is moderate.

Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said both candidates need to figure out a way to appeal to independents if they are going to win.

"It would kind of be a unique circumstance in Virginia political history," Skelley said. "Virginia doesn't have the habit of electing or even nominating fire breathers or extremely strong partisans."

Two Candidates Outside the Mainstream

Democrats rely on support in Northern Virginia, the area outside Washington, D.C., where both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli reside and where the economy relies so heavily on its proximity to the federal government. There are other urban areas, like Richmondext, where Democrats find support, but candidates also need to appeal to the more conservative southern parts of the state. The race for governor, though, could be won or lost in the outer suburbs of Washington, where the population continues to grow.

Two men who were either in the race or considering a run were seen as more moderate. Republican Lt. Governor Bill Bolling dropped out of the race last month, and Mark Warner, current Democratic senator and former governor, decided not to seek his old office.

Kaine and Warner had moderate appeal. While current governor Bob McDonnell, who is ineligible to run again, is a conservative Republican, he campaigned with a focus on jobs and the economy. (That's despite the fact that two months before the 2009 election the Washington Post revealed a master's thesis in which McDonnell wrote that feminists and working women are detrimental to traditional families.)

"It's kind of unusual," Skelley said, "when you have a candidate so far one way or the other. If there has been a candidate outside of the mainstream that candidate has typically left [the race]."

One thing McAuliffe's team is counting on is making sure to define Cuccinelli as extreme as they possibly can.

Campaign co-chair and Virginia state senator A. Donald McEachin said it's "incumbent on our side" to point out their opponent's views on the social issues, but stressed they can't rely just on that tactic. He said the campaign is "prepared to put aside divisive social issues and focus on jobs, focus on the economy."

"Ken Cuccinelli is no fool," McEachin said. "He's intelligent and articulate. We have to take him seriously. We can't just sit around and say, 'He's crazy, he can't get elected.'"

McEachin added they are counting on the momentum that propelled Obama to win the swing state for the second time to help deliver the governorship for McAuliffe.

Cuccinelli's chief strategist Chris LaCivita says they expect their opponent to try and define the attorney general as "out of the mainstream," something he says Democrats try to do in most gubernatorial races.

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