Virginia governor hopefuls struggle to appeal to bases
WINCHESTER, Va. — Nothing's more elusive in the Old Dominion than a voter who wholeheartedly supports a candidate for governor.
Take Bob Courtney, for example.
Standing under a post office awning here as a misty rain fell, Courtney said he would “hold my nose and vote” — adding, after a long pause, that he'd pick the Republican as “the lesser of two evils.”
With the election nine days away, that Republican — Ken Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general — trails Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire Terry McAuliffe by nearly 18 points in one recent poll. Libertarian Robert Sarvis is a distant third.
The prevailing national mood — anti-Washington, anti-government, still fatigued by last year's presidential election — is magnified in Virginia because of its proximity to Washington.
Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe has energized supporters, analysts say.
“Not appealing to your base is a big problem in an off-year election,” said Bruce Haynes, a Republican media consultant for Virginia-based Purple Strategies, a firm that represents candidates of both parties.
Both men have enlisted partisan stars to campaign for them: Bill and Hillary Clinton for McAuliffe; Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee for Cuccinelli.
Both unleashed highly negative campaign ads to suppress moderate-voter support.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said things “look bleak” for Cuccinelli.
“The aggregate polling indicates an increasing McAuliffe lead, and the latest fundraising numbers show an ever-growing McAuliffe advantage there, too,” he said. McAuliffe raised a reported $6.2 million in September, versus Cuccinelli's $3.4 million.
Skelley said the federal shutdown hurt both sides because “so much of Northern Virginia (is) part of the government workforce,” but “Republicans are getting more of the blame, which can't help Cuccinelli.”
‘Crusader' vs. ‘Insider'
In the spring, the race looked very different.
Three polls in April and early May showed Cuccinelli ahead; one from the Washington Post put him up by 10 percentage points.
Yet, McAuliffe has held the lead in all but one poll since mid-May and in all polls since August, according to RealClearPolitics' poll compendium.
He has about a 7-point advantage in the poll average.
The race has been all about Cuccinelli's ideology.
Like former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., he is a conservative crusader on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and his firebrand personality is most at ease appealing to fellow fundamentalists.
Haynes believes Cuccinelli was “defined early on” as “too ideological to be governor” and he failed to “talk about how he would govern.”
“Most McAuliffe attack ads employ the line, ‘He's focused on his own agenda. Not us' — whether the ad deals with abortion, women's health issues, homosexuality or climate change — to try to make Virginia voters see Cuccinelli as an extremist,” Skelley said.
McAuliffe has not exactly set Democrats on fire, however.
Known more as a Washington insider and fundraiser than a native Virginian, his campaign has been dogged by questions about GreenTech Automotive, an electric car company he founded that is being investigated in two federal inquiries.
Sitting alone in the Frederick County Democratic headquarters on Braddock Street here, volunteer Bill Scott said McAuliffe's business investments “certainly aroused questions.”
“I'd personally prefer someone more progressive,” he said.
With an iconic Obama “Hope” silkscreen poster leaning against McAuliffe yard signs behind him, Scott admitted it will “be hard to get young people” to vote.
Skelley said turnout is hard to predict: “On the one hand, neither candidate is well-liked, and the race is terribly ugly. But on the other hand, this race is still much more competitive than the 2009 Virginia governor's race,” when Republican Bob McDonnell beat Democrat Creigh Deeds by 17 points.
Republicans control Virginia's statewide offices, except for its Senate seats, and both state legislative chambers — even though President Obama twice won the state.
Experts are uncertain how the governor's race will affect down-ballot contests. They are uncertain whether it will impact 2014 midterm elections.
As for national implications in 2014 or in 2016's presidential race, Haynes said this election looks more like a choice of the less odious candidate than a harbinger of things to come. But it could impact “the broader battle (for) the direction of the Republican Party.”
If Cuccinelli loses, he said, that could be “ammunition for those who are making the argument that the Republican Party needs to reposition itself” to attract more centrist voters.
“Right now, it is hard to articulate what Republicans are for — and if Cuccinelli goes down, people will hold this up as the latest example of that,” he said.
Haynes does not believe Republicans nationally should be alarmed by the lopsided fundraising advantage McAuliffe has held here, or that Massachusetts' Democrat Ed Markey held over Republican Gabriel Gomez in a June special election for John Kerry's Senate seat.
“Yes, there is donor fatigue, but there is also money out there to do something,” he said. In Virginia as in Massachusetts, “both the ideological and business money was looking for the right guy in the right race” — and neither found Cuccinelli or Gomez compelling.
Instead, he said, Republicans should learn from this race that they need a better, more positive message to win over voters.
“ ‘Grim death is upon us' is all you ever heard” from too many Republicans, he said. “People don't want to go to a political funeral — they want to go to a revival.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.