Given the deep divisions in the Republican Party, even a 30-point win on Tuesday will not automatically catapult Christie to frontrunner status. There are reservations among conservatives that he is too moderate, and that moderates lost the last two elections (McCain and Romney). In any case, given the unpopularity of Congress — and in particular, Republicans in Congress — successful governors such as Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker (who also has won twice in a blue state), and Indiana’s Mike Pence will all be in the mix for 2016.
Virginia’s governor’s race has a entirely different feel. The outcome has become a bit less certain over the last week, with most polls showing a tightening race. Democrat Terry McAuliffe seemed to be headed for a decisive win, with three separate polls giving him leads of 12 points or more over the Republican candidate, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe has stuck closely to the Obama 2012 campaign script in his second race for governor, raising huge sums of money early on. He nearly doubled the fundraising of Cuccinelli ($34 million to $19 million). McAuliffe’s media campaign has focused almost exclusively on the themes Obama used effectively against Mitt Romney, utilizing constant negative attacks on his opponent such as “the Republicans’ alleged war on women,” while trying to taint Cuccinelli with the scandals of current Republican Governor Bob McDonnell. McAuliffe also got a boost from the effort by some congressional Republicans that resulted in the shutdown of the federal government for the first two weeks of October. In a state heavily dependent on government salaries and contracts, the two week confrontation launched by the Tea Party and its supporters played very poorly.
Cuccinelli has now pulled within striking range in two recent polls — 2% behind in an Emerson College poll, and 4% behind in a Quinnipiac College poll. Almost all of the polling in both New Jersey and Virginia has been conducted by college-associated polling groups, rather than by national polling organizations. In the presidential race in Virginia in 2012, the national polls were right on the mark, with Obama winning the state by 4%, exactly his national margin of victory.
Cuccinelli’s surge is likely associated with the extremely incompetent rollout of the Obamacare health care exchanges, as well as by the recent barrage of stories detailing that millions of Americans with individual insurance policies have already been dropped by insurance companies as a result of the non-compliance of the existing policies with Obamacare mandates for coverage. These stories about insurance company actions have put defenders of the new health care law such as McAuliffe in a defensive posture, since President Obama claimed for almost four years that people who liked their doctors or their plans would get to keep them.
Cuccinelli, on the other hand, was an early foe of Obamacare and challenged the law in court. After two weeks of the race being nationalized on terms very favorable to McAuliffe (the debt ceiling fight and government shutdown), now the race has been impacted by national news far more favorable to the Republican nominee (big government incompetence and Obama lies). Barack Obama will campaign for McAuliffe in the final days, trying to stimulate heavy minority turnout, but his visit may focus even more attention on the health care law.
The Virginia race has a bit of added uncertainty due to a third party candidate, Robert Sarvis, running as a Libertarian. Sarvis has consistently polled at levels over 10%. Normally, the vote total of third party candidates sinks on election day from prior polling levels when the race is close between the two major party candidates. Ralph Nader polled at 5% or higher before the 2000 race, but failed to reach 3% of the actual popular vote. Sarvis’ polling numbers have shown no sign of dropping off as Cuccinelli has edged closer to McAuliffe (a lead of 5% for McAuliffe on average in the last five polls), and Sarvis seems to be picking up some support from people who have moved away from McAuliffe. Both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are far better known than Sarvis, and most Virginia voters seem unhappy with both of them. From the Emerson College survey:
All the candidates continue to have higher unfavorable than favorable ratings, with McAuliffe’s at 37 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable and Cuccinelli at 38 percent to 56 percent. Third party candidate Sarvis is also disliked with a 22 percent unfavorable rating and a 19 percent favorable rating.
The Virginia race will likely be decided by turnout, where Democrats, with their more technologically sophisticated get-out-the-vote operations, have excelled in the Obama era. Virginia is considered a purple state, but Democrats have won both Senate races and the last two presidential races. Republicans had their day in the state races in 2009 and in House races in 2010. Unless there is a significant shift from Sarvis to Cuccinelli in the next few days, McAuliffe appears headed to a mid-single-digit victory. In any case, there is undoubtedly more nervousness this weekend in the McAuliffe camp than there was last weekend. There is also nervousness in the Hillary Clinton household, since having Clinton ally McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s chair would be a boost to her 2016 candidacy.