While the polls for the Virginia governor’s race have narrowed somewhat over the last fortnight, there are signs that a kind of pre-post-mortem on the race is underway among national Republicans, with the two factions who are currently at each other’s throats over everything else blaming one another for what many experts predicted should have been a Republican victory.
Well before the last votes are cast in the state’s off-year governor’s race, GOP leaders are already engaged in a spirited debate over why, exactly, a fight against a Democrat as flawed as Terry McAuliffe has turned into such a painful slog of a campaign. Even Republicans who haven’t yet counted out their nominee, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, view the governor’s race as a profile in frustration for the GOP – an election that should have leaned toward the Republicans, but where Democrats have held a persistent lead in polling, money and tactical prowess.
The GOP’s internal discussion about the race mirrors much of the broader national tug of war within the conservative coalition, between officials and strategists who want the party to trim back some of its most confrontational tactics and hard-edged rhetoric, and activists bent on drawing the starkest possible lines of contrast with the Democratic party of President Barack Obama.
The clearest battle lines will emerge after Tuesday; but the Washington community has groused for months about Cuccinelli’s history of incendiary, ultra-ideological stances, while rank-and-file activists have watched with horror as well-tailored GOP donors have defected to McAuliffe. Everyone in the party – establishment and tea party alike – has fumed over the ongoing ethics controversies that have rocked outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration and undercut Cuccinelli’s anticipated advantage over McAuliffe on personal integrity.
A Cuccinelli defeat, in other words, would have a thousand fathers. But this much is already clear: the GOP’s accumulated problems in Virginia have brought the party to the edge of a historic defeat in a nationally pivotal swing state, potentially producing a Republican shutout of all five statewide offices (governor, attorney general, lieutenant governor and two U.S. senators) for the first time since the Nixon administration.
Republican Governors Association executive director Phil Cox, whose group has spent nearly $8 million boosting Cuccinelli, firmly rejected the idea that the Virginia race reflected any limitations of conservative ideas. But he allowed that there may be lessons to learn about how you go about delivering a conservative message.
Most observers agree that the polls have been particularly unhelpful in determining the state of the race. Last week, the Quinnipiac and Emerson College polls both showed former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe ahead by just 2 points. But two other polls showed McAuliffe comfortably ahead by 7. All the polls show Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis at or near 10%, pulling slightly more support from Republicans than Democrats.
Conventional wisdom says that Cuccinelli was undone by the government shutdown — a logical, but largely unproven thesis. The problem with it is that while it’s true that government is hugely important to the Virginia economy, and that Tea Party Republicans were generally blamed by Virginians for it, there’s no indication of any lasting damage as a result of the circus in Washington. McAuliffe is ahead by the same percentage now as he was before the shutdown — a 7% edge according to the RCP average.
What about those polls showing a narrower race? The Quinnipiac and Emerson surveys polled respondents during the time that the blow-up over Obamacare hit its peak with the president’s lies about Americans being able to keep their insurance if they liked it exposed. One would think that if Cuccinelli could be damaged by the government shutdown, McAuliffe might have taken a hit due to the imbroglio over Obamacare.
It’s an intriguing possibility — especially if Cuccinelli can complete the comeback. But outside issues like the shutdown or Obamacare are not likely to decide this election. What will spell the difference between victory and defeat will be turnout — specifically, which side can turn out more of their base supporters than the other. In this, Cuccinelli appears to be doing very well, with the Republican base energized and responding to recent campaign appearances with Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and other conservative favorites.
On the other hand, McAuliffe has a problem. His base of minorities, the young, and single women is much tougher to move to the polls on election day in an off-year election. The Dems are hugely outspending the GOP and pulling out all the stops with former President Clinton and Hillary campaigning with their old crony and President Obama set to appear with the candidate this weekend. McAuliffe’s ground game is also well-financed and extensive.
So in the end, it may, indeed, come down to which candidate will suffer more — Cuccinelli for the shutdown or McAuliffe for Obamacare. With both candidates possessing unfavorable ratings in the 50s, it definitely isn’t going to be a popularity contest.