Tight Race

How the Richer, Better Run Campaign Barely Won in Virginia

Despite significantly outspending Ken Cuccinelli and enjoying a big early lead in the Virginia governor’s race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won only narrowly—and it came down to the wire.

11.07.13 10:45 AM ET

The surprise in Tuesday’s Virginia gubernatorial election isn’t that Terry McAuliffe badly underperformed polls in achieving a slim win of 48 percent to 46 percent over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. It’s that McAuliffe won at all.

Disappointed Cuccinelli supporters can point to a number of reasons why their candidate lost, but relieved McAuliffe backers don’t have easy answers for how a six- to eight-point lead going in ended up in a nail-biter that wasn’t called for hours after the polls closed.

Looking back over the campaign, almost everything, until the issues with HealthCare.gov started, broke McAuliffe’s way. The Democrat had more money, more people, and a much more unified party. And he didn’t have to run on the same ticket as E.W. Jackson, the fringe GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.

The most obvious factor was money. McAuliffe had a huge financial advantage, which allowed him to build a presidential level field organization and dominate the airwaves. By the last week of the campaign, he was outspending Cuccinelli 5-1 on television and had 13,000 volunteers to get out the vote. McAuliffe also was able to engage in more precise targeting among groups such as Hispanics and young voters. One voter in Woodbridge, Veronica Ortega, told The Daily Beast that the McAuliffe campaign had been “all over Hispanic media” and, at a Cuccinelli rally the week before the election, Patrick Bowlds, a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, said it seemed every time he went on YouTube, he saw an ad for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe also took advantage of Virginia’s lax campaign finance laws, which allowed the Democratic Governors Association to transfer $6 million directly to his campaign. In contrast, as a memo from DGA spokesman Danny Kanner clucked, the GOP took an entirely different approach: “The Republican Governors Association tried to run a different campaign than their own candidate—a puzzling strategy that made both the Cuccinelli campaign and the RGA less effective.” By end of the campaign, Cuccinelli had been outspent by more than $15 million.

Cuccinelli also was handicapped by the government shutdown. His campaign strategist Chris LaCivita tweeted Wednesday: “‘Who shot john’ may be fun to some but look at shutdown and what it prevented the campaign from saying. Therein lies the real issue.” His point was that the 17-day shutdown dominated the news and caused great damage to the economy in Northern Virginia. That put the Republican candidate on the defensive and swamped any coverage of the problems with HealthCare.gov, an issue that Cuccinelli, as a stalwart opponent of Obamacare, was poised to capitalize on.

But even the shutdown and Obamacare took second place to social issues such as abortion, birth control, and sodomy, on which McAuliffe was able to attack Cuccinelli’s hard right conservative beliefs to court moderate swing voters. If elected, Gov. Cuccinelli was never going to ban condoms and make oral sex a felony, but the campaign wasn’t able to respond effectively to the attacks claiming that his rhetoric suggested he might. The Virginia attorney general had come into the campaign with the label “Ayatollah Cuccinelli” and was seen as even more extreme by Election Day.

The Democrats also benefited from a united party. McAuliffe had been given a glide path to the nomination and had the active support of almost every Democratic elected official.

Republicans were far less forthcoming on behalf of their gubernatorial nominee, with some even crossing party lines to support McAuliffe. Cuccinelli had publically feuded with Gov. Bob McDonnell over his proposal to raise taxes. And, even if that could be papered over, McDonnell was ensnared in an ongoing ethics scandal that kept him off the campaign trail. But that relationship seemed harmonious compared to the toxic fight between Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Cuccinelli. Bolling had been anointed as McDonnell’s successor by the party establishment, but Cuccinelli jumped the line and took advantage of party rules to force the gubernatorial nomination to be decided in a convention, not a primary. As a result, Bolling stayed on the sidelines throughout the governor’s race, and close Bolling allies openly backed McAuliffe. Even where relationships were more cordial, elected Republicans didn’t do much. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who represents a metro Richmond district, didn’t appear at Cuccinelli’s Election Night event at the Richmond Marriott. However, the next morning at 8 a.m., the hotel hosted a Cantor for Congress fundraiser.

The decision to hold a convention instead of a primary backfired in other ways, as well. It meant that all party nominees for statewide office were decided by party activists and no primary election was held for lieutenant governor or attorney general. The result was that after four ballots and 10 hours of debate, E.W. Jackson, a pastor who said the Democratic Party’s policies were “worthy of the Antichrist” and that yoga led to Satanism, got on the ticket. Needless to say, it would have been easier for Cuccinelli if John Doe had been his running mate.

Jackson’s candidacy was more than a sideshow; it serves as a key indicator of what an uphill battle Democrats face in off-year elections in Virginia. Jackson was below replacement value as a candidate. He was a gaffe machine who didn’t raise money. He still received 45 percent of the vote despite the mere mention of his name eliciting eye rolls from party loyalists. The result shows how high the baseline was for Republicans in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and what little margin for error Democrats had.

For all of the obstacles the GOP faced, Democrats only had one real problem: They had a bad candidate. McAuliffe was ethically challenged, had no electoral experience, and was coming off a long career as a lobbyist and Washington wheeler-dealer, but they worked around it and ran an almost mistake-free campaign. If Cuccinelli, who wasn’t a great candidate, either, had had better luck, more money, or a less divided party, he could have won. But he didn’t get any of the breaks, and in January 2014, McAuliffe will be sworn in as the next governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.