One to Watch: The Virginia Governor's Race

PHOTO: Terry McAuliffe and Ken CuccinelliPlayWireImage
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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.

"It's already started with Ken and it should be noted in early 2009 they were saying the ticket of McDonnell, [Lt. Gov Bill] Bolling, and Cuccinelli was the most radical ticket ever in Virginia history, and we fully expect that to be recycled this year as well.… If the Democrats believe that what voters want to hear about is that the Republican is a right-wing nut job, I just don't think it's something that's going to fly."

LaCivita, a longtime GOP strategist, also noted that Cuccinelli has been "elected twice in Fairfax County," a part of Northern Virginia thought to be less conservative than much of the state, "and once statewide."

"Terry McAuliffe hasn't been elected dog catcher," LaCivita said. "Ken is a smart guy, he's shown how to get things done and has a pretty good idea about the issues facing the commonwealth…. He's put his foot down on a lot of major issues, but what his detractors say is, You may not agree with where Ken Cuccinelli stands on the issues, but you always know where he is."

It's the Economy, Virginia

LaCivita added that "independents and moderates, Virginians all, it doesn't matter what political persuasion" have concerns about the state's economy, employment, education and transportation -- issues Cuccinelli has been working on for 20 years -- and that's how they plan to fashion their campaign.

As for the McAuliffe campaign, they are also planning to focus on the economy. McEachin says what McAuliffe needs to do first, despite his last race, is introduce himself to the state.

"He's not been seen as a major party nominee at the statewide level ever," McEachin said. " Once we get through that period and once he focuses on his business experience, his experience creating jobs, how he knows what it takes to attract businesses to Virginia, how he can help the president keep the economy on an even keel, he will appeal to Virginians of all philosophical stripes."

McAuliffe is selling himself to the state, not as a former party chair and fundraiser, but with his business credentials. He owns an electric-car company, but has gotten some scrutiny in the state for opening two plants not in Virginia but in Mississippi. McAuliffe says the state didn't offer incentives, while Mississippi did.

One thing the attorney general does have going for him, Skelley notes, is that Virginia "has an amusing history, whichever party is not in control of the White House has won the governorship since 1977."

National issues can affect the race -- especially now that Virginia is truly a swing state -- Skelley notes and how the president's second term is going could affect McAuliffe's chances.

"If the economy is improving, maybe it would bode well for McAuliffe. If it's not going well, I can see him losing to Cuccinelli," Skelley said.

It's early for polls, but a Quinnipiac poll from last month had McAuliffe with a four-point edge to Cuccinelli, 41 percent to 37 percent.

Possible Republican Drama

Although who's in the race seems settled, there is a chance for a shakeup due to the animosity between Bolling and Cuccinelli. Bolling pulled out of the race last month, making the decision after Cuccinelli supporters on the state party's central committee were able to change the nominating process last spring from a primary to a convention, which tend to favor more conservative candidates with grassroots support. Bolling was also lagging in polls and Cuccinelli was favored to win the primary.

"Barring some extremely unexpected turn of events, it will be McAuliffe versus Cuccinelli in 2013," Skelley acknowledged. "The only other wild card is if Bill Bolling decides to run as an independent, but I'm dubious about that, but you can't write it off totally."

Bolling has not endorsed Cuccinelli yet, instead telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch he had "serious reservations about [Cuccinelli's] ability to effectively and responsibly lead the state" and somewhat left the door open for an independent run. Skelley says if Bolling "were to do that, he would do that knowing he was tearing apart the Virginia Republican party to a certain extent and by running he would be directly helping McAuliffe win" by splitting the GOP vote.

LaCivita said he does not believe Bolling will enter the race as an independent and in time will back Cuccinelli.

Bolling was surprised when Cuccinelli originally decided to take him on for the nomination, another reason why hard feelings remain. An aide to the attorney general explains it as, "Bill is pissed right now so we will let Bill be pissed," noting as time goes on, he believes voters will forget about the strife between the two.

And then of course there's alleged White House party crasher and reality television star Tareq Salahi, who's challenging Cuccinelli. While no one's taking his bid seriously, the two will meet at the May 18 Republican nominating convention.