Why Conservative Crusader Ken Cuccinelli Can Win Virginia

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It's possible that no Republican in America, save Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich, engenders more open abhorrence from Beltway Democrats than Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Talk to strategists for Democratic groups and abortion-rights organizations about Cuccinelli, and the GOP gubernatorial candidate's name usually evokes sarcasm or audible shivers.

It's easy to see why. He challenged President Obama's health-care law and helped push it to the Supreme Court. He supports regulations on abortion clinics and defunding Planned Parenthood. He labeled the Obama administration "the biggest set of lawbreakers in America" and he dubbed the Environmental Protection Agency the "agency of mass destruction."

All of that has endeared Cuccinelli to conservatives like the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, which is airing ads in his support, and it's made bitter enemies of Democrats.

"The Democrats live in existential dread of Ken Cuccinelli," one Virginia Republican told ABC.

A governor's race doesn't typically hinge on social issues, and Cuccinelli and his opponent, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, have kicked off their TV campaigns with ads that avoid them, showcasing the candidates as a devoted public servant and a job-creator, respectively. The governor's race, as Republican and Democratic operatives told ABC News, will be about state management: roads, bridges and jobs.

The race has begun in earnest, with McAuliffe appearing in Richmond today with Sen. Tim Kaine, the former governor who also formerly headed the DNC, in the first of a series of public events this week to officially launch his campaign.

Cuccinelli's candidacy, against a former Democratic fundraiser and strategist, raises a question: Even if he sticks to a public-service script, can an alleged megaconservative win in a purple state?

Virginia has now voted for Obama twice in a row, giving the president 53 percent in 2008 and 51 percent in 2012. It hadn't gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and before that 1948.

But Cuccinelli can win, in the same state where Mitt Romney failed.

Cuccinelli barely leads, but it's early for polling to render an accurate prediction, and that's not the reason why he's poised to do well in this election. It's that Virginia's electorate will be vastly different in 2013 than it was in 2012.

Along with New Jersey, Virginia holds its gubernatorial election in the off-year, and turnout is very different. For one, it' s much smaller. In 2009, 1.98 million people voted in the election of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell; Obama alone got almost that many votes in 2008 and again in 2012. The presidential-year turnouts of 3.72 million in 2008 and 3.85 million in 2012 almost doubled turnout in the off year.

The electorate is older, whiter, more rural, more conservative and more evangelical-all groups that are more likely to vote Republican.

Image credit: ABC News

That helps explain why Virginia elected a Republican governor in 2009.

Sure, McDonnell ran a centrist campaign that earned him national GOP cachet (he was considered, at the time, to be less conservative than Ken Cuccinelli is now), and sure, 2009 saw the beginnings of the anti-Obama conservative movement that would sweep Republicans into office nationwide the next year. Those factors both pointed toward Republicans seizing a purple opportunity.

But Virginia's electorate is different in its gubernatorial elections. Minorities, women, and Democratic voters from the Northern Virginia suburbs didn't turn out as strongly in 2009, when a presidential race wasn't being run and Obama wasn't on the ballot.

Because of that, if Cuccinelli does win, his victory won't necessarily mean Republicans will retake the Commonwealth in 2016.