The most important election on Tuesday is the Virginia governor’s race. Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli have fought a high-stakes campaign to determine who will lead this crucial swing state for the next four years. Both are considered to be imperfect candidates: Front runner McAuliffe has a history of questionable business deals, while Cuccinelli has preached a steadfast social conservatism, which includes hostility toward birth control and support for a sodomy ban. With McAuliffe only leading polls by eight points, the election is far from a sure thing.
Here are five key benchmarks to follow on Tuesday night as the returns come in.
Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is projected to win more than 10 percent of votes in some polls. Sarvis likely won’t do anywhere near that well. Most pundits think he’ll be lucky to get 6 percent, but even that would be an impressive margin for a third-party candidate. Sarvis’s level of support seems to come from his position as the “none-of-the-above” candidate. Many voters have strong doubts about both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe, and the Libertarian is the only other option on the ballot. Some Republicans are already making Sarvis a scapegoat for a possible Cuccinelli loss, claiming he drained away votes from social moderates for the GOP nominee. However, recent polls show Sarvis drawing voters almost equally from both parties.
The conventional wisdom in Virginia is the higher the turnout, the better Democrats do. In off-year gubernatorial elections like this one, turnout drops dramatically and the average voter is older and whiter, which benefits Republicans. Almost twice as many voters turned out in 2012 than in 2009. Even before the first results come in, anecdotal reports of lines at polling places, or lack thereof, should provide an important hint about the outcome.
Fairfax County, the most populous jurisdiction in the state, was once a Republican bastion. Just south and west of Washington, D.C., the suburban county filled with government contractors was carried by every Republican presidential nominee from Richard Nixon in 1968 through George W. Bush in 2000. Times have changed, though, and the county has become increasingly diverse and solidly Democratic territory. McAuliffe must do well there to win. If he wins Fairfax by a narrow margin, Republicans could have a very good night. But if McAuliffe does as well as Barack Obama, who got about 60 percent of the vote in the crucial county, Democrats will be virtually assured of a win.
ATTORNEY GENERAL’S RACE
Two other statewide offices are on the ballot in Virginia on Tuesday. Democrat Ralph Northam is expected to coast to victory over far-right Republican E.W. Jackson, who has made a host of controversial comments. But further down the ballot, the attorney general’s race between Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obenshain is a dead heat. Herring has been running ads that link Obenshain to Cuccinelli on social issues and seek to make the gubernatorial nominee’s unpopularity a drag on the rest of the ticket. If Herring’s strategy pays off with a win, it will be devastating blow to Republicans, who will be shut out of statewide office in the Old Dominion for the first time in decades.
While Virginia has gone from solidly Republican to a swing state, southwestern Virginia has swung the other way. It’s a coal-dependent, poverty-ridden area far more culturally similar to West Virginia or eastern Kentucky, where Obama has been deeply unpopular. But despite the region’s cultural attitudes, state-level Democrats such as Mark Warner have done very well there. McAuliffe won’t likely win these counties, but they’re still worth watching. The margin of McAuliffe’s loss will be an important barometer of the ongoing shift toward the GOP in Appalachia and a sign of whether Democrats can regain some of the ground lost during Obama’s presidency.