Va. governor's race: Nationally significant or just nasty?

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

Steve Helber/AP

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

Virginians go to the polls Tuesday to pick the man they dislike the least to be their new governor: longtime Clinton moneyman Terry McAuliffe or hardline Tea Party conservative Ken Cuccinelli.

If McAuliffe prevails, as polls suggest he will by dominating the women's vote, the result will likely reverberate beyond the Old Dominion, amplifying the GOP's post-government shutdown struggle to tame its more radical, nose-thumbing Tea Party wing.

"Republicans have said their strength is in the states, and with governors," says Quentin Kidd, whose Friday poll for Christopher Newport University had McAuliffe up by 7 points over Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general. "What happens if you nominate a Tea Party candidate, rev up the base and lose?"

Presidents And Would-Be Presidents

The schedule in the campaign's final days leaves little doubt about the stakes.

President Obama plans to campaign Sunday with Democrat McAuliffe, a longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton adviser who last week was joined on the trail by the former president.

And Cuccinelli has lined up a trio of potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — for his final push in battleground Virginia.

Not everyone, however, agrees that a Cuccinelli loss would have national implications.

Sure, it would be the first time in three decades that the party not in power in the White House would have lost the Virginia governorship. But conservatives like Norm Leahy argue that Cuccinelli faced a specific set of state-based challenges that don't translate nationally.

"I don't buy the argument peddled in national GOP circles that Cuccinelli's problems stem from his conservatism," says Leahy, an editor at the popular conservative Virginia political website BearingDrift.com. "There were a lot of specific issues here that don't apply elsewhere."

Cuccinelli's decision to stay on as attorney general while running for governor meant that he was, fairly or not, tainted by a gift-taking scandal that engulfed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

He antagonized many in the GOP when he engineered his nomination at a party convention instead of a primary, sidelining popular Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

And his position on women's reproductive rights, including high-profile support of a failed bill that would have required invasive ultrasounds for women contemplating abortion, provided a trove of advertisement fodder for the well-financed McAuliffe.

Still, Leahy argues that if Cuccinelli had run a better campaign with a strategy to corral moderates and Bolling supporters, he would have maintained his early lead in the polls.

"Bob McDonnell was a strong social conservative who won a landslide victory for governor in 2009," Leahy says. "Bob McDonnell gave Republicans the blueprint on how to win statewide: Focus on the economy and education. Change the emphasis as needed, but stick to it."

"Ken appears to have tossed those plans into the James River," he says.

Libertarian And The Tea Party

Cuccinelli's path is further complicated by the presence of largely unknown, poorly-financed third-party Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. Recent polls suggest that Sarvis' support is approaching double digits, drawing largely from Republican rolls.

But is it magical thinking to assume that a better strategy would have propelled Cuccinelli to the governor's office, especially on the heels of the Tea Party-fueled federal government shutdown, which hit Virginia especially hard?

For Judy Ford Wason, a former National Republican Committee member from Virginia, the answer is clearly "yes."

Wason, once a state GOP stalwart, endorsed McAuliffe after her party nominated Cuccinelli, along with E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain for attorney general.

Jackson, a pastor, is known for his anti-gay statements, and has suggested that God created the Tea Party. Obenshain is a social conservative who once proposed a bill to require that women report miscarriages to police.

"The convention nominated a ticket that was unlike a ticket that's been nominated by a party in a long, long time," says Wason, who supports legal abortion and previously endorsed Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. "It took the party so far to the right, and was so ideological that Virginia independents and moderate Republicans really couldn't wrap their arms around it."

'Never-Ending Nightmare'

The larger message Virginia's gubernatorial race should hold for Republicans, she says, revolves around the issue of alienation.

"If you alienate demographic voters — women, African-Americans, Hispanics, environmentalists," she says, "at some point it's impossible to put together a winning coalition."

"If the McAuliffe ticket sweeps, and brings in House of Delegates Democrats, the Republican Party really better step back and figure out what's wrong, and how we fix it," says Wason.

It's not that McAuliffe is popular: When likely voters who said they supported the Democrat were asked if they were casting their vote for McAuliffe or against Cuccinelli, 64 percent told Washington Post surveyors that it was against the Republican.

There may not be agreement about whether the result of Virginia's race will be nationally predictive, or just parochially significant. But there is some common ground: Just about everyone will be glad when what Leahy characterized as the "never-ending nightmare of a race" is over.

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