Weak and Weaker

Why the GOP May Lose Virginia’s Statehouse

The race isn’t one weak candidate against another. It's a weak Terry McAuliffe against a disaster of an opponent.

08.22.13 8:45 AM ET

The conventional wisdom on the Virginia gubernatorial race can be summed up in a single sentence: Terry McAuliffe is too weak to beat anyone other than Ken Cuccinelli, who likewise is too weak to beat anyone other than Terry McAuliffe. This, however, is a little unfair to McAuliffe.

Yes, “the Macker” is a fast-talking salesman and boundless fundraiser, whose public persona is one of aggressive inauthenticity. “I would buy a new car from Terry,” said Bill Clinton in a 2012 interview with Mike Leibovich in The New York Times Magazine, “But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car.” But Tea Party-favorite Cuccinelli is a rigid extremist, whose slavish devotion to his ideology has made him vulnerable in a state that prides itself on political independence. Which is why, if the latest poll from Quinnipiac University is any indication, the conventional wisdom is wrong—McAuliffe is stronger than expected, and Cuccinelli is much weaker than anyone imagined.

According to Quinnipiac, McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli by six points among likely voters, 48 percent to 42 percent. This is big news. So far, Quinnipiac is the only pollster to look beyond registered voters, where Democrats have an edge. The likely voter pool, by contrast, is smaller, whiter, and in the case of Virginia gubernatorial elections, much older. If past elections are any guide, a likely voter poll should have given Cuccinelli a small advantage over his opponent. For now, however, he’s at a significant disadvantage.

There’s more. At the same time McAuliffe is winning almost every Democrat (only 1 percent opposed), Cuccinelli is losing 6 percent of Republicans. And indeed, recent news suggests that the state’s GOP establishment—or at least, a portion of it—has turned against the attorney general, repelled by his extremism and rigidity. To wit, Boyd Marcus—a veteran Republican consultant whose client list includes former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—has joined the McAuliffe camp. “I was looking at the candidates, and I saw Terry McAuliffe as the guy who will work with everybody to get things done,” Marcus said to the Associated Press. Likewise, in a press release announcing the endorsement, the McAuliffe campaign quotes Marcus as saying, “I’ve never before supported any Democrat, but this election, Terry is the clear choice for mainstream conservatives.”

McAuliffe still has his weaknesses; only 46 percent say he has the “right kind of experience” for the job, and voters are divided 39 percent to 36 percent on whether the Democratic nominee is “honest and trustworthy.” On the other end, Virginians are slightly more likely to say he understands their problems (38 percent to 37 percent) and far more likely to say Cuccinelli doesn’t—42 percent say McAuliffe doesn’t understand, compared to 51 percent for the attorney general. As Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac Polling notes in the release, “It’s a tossup among voters who say honesty is extremely important. Voters care more about empathy than experience which helps explain McAuliffe’s lead.”

What’s more, Cuccinelli does have a few things going for him. He wins on enthusiasm—his supporters are eager to vote for him—and experience: 56 percent of voters say he has the right kind of experience, compared to 31 percent who disagree. Still, the numbers suggest Cuccinelli is in for a slog if he’s to win the election. In 2009, then-attorney general Bob McDonnell scored big margins among women and independents. Cuccinelli, by contrast, has a slight leader with the latter—44 percent to 42 percent—and a double-digit deficit with the former, losing them 38 percent to 50 percent. He’s even underperforming among white voters, winning 50 percent to McAuliffe’s 42 percent. This is deadly. Even if this is a low-turnout election—and McAuliffe is working hard to ensure the opposite, with a staff and strategy drawn from President Obama’s reelection effort—Cuccinelli needs high margins with white voters to win.

Cuccinelli has one other problem, and that’s his connection to the “gifts” scandal that has engulfed Gov. Bob McDonnell with questions, controversy, and a federal investigation. Cuccinelli was cleared of wrongdoing in his dealings with Star Scientific, the company at the center of the storm. But he received $18,000 in gifts from its CEO, Jonnie Williams, making him part and parcel of the controversy, which keeps getting worse; according to the Washington Post, Maureen McDonnell purchased thousands of shares in Star Scientific with cash from Williams, raising further questions about a quid pro quo. At this point, criminal charges are a real possibility.

As always, it’s still early, and there are a lot of things that could change. Right now, however, the conventional wisdom doesn’t look so wise. The Virginia gubernatorial race isn’t one weak candidate against another, it’s one weak candidate against a disaster of an opponent, representing a Virginia Republican Party on the verge of collapse.