Look Out, Virginia!

WaPo’s Karen Tumulty has the first big media preview of this year’s Virginia governor’s race featuring Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. And here’s the real lede: “Both sides expect the race to be one of the most vicious the state has seen.”

Tumulty mentions but does not dwell upon a data point that we will hear interminably from Republicans during the VA campaign:

In every one of Virginia’s past nine gubernatorial contests, the Old Dominion has rejected the party of the president elected only a year before.

(I once did a Five Thirty Eight post casting doubt on this “Virginia always votes against party controlling White House” myth, but it seems to have been lost in the mists of the 538 archives. I may revisit the analysis later this year, but suffice it to say there are other explanations for the phenomenon, mainly revolving around the internal partisan dynamics of the Old Dominion rather than any “national referendum” effect).

Tumulty spends more time, appropriately, on the turnout dynamics that could give Republicans more of an advantage than any historical “rules:”

If the electorate looks like it usually does in an odd-numbered year, with one-third fewer voters and a stronger GOP tilt, Cuccinelli may hold the edge.

McAuliffe’s best chance of breaking the off-year curse is reviving and replicating the coalition that delivered the state to Obama last year. That would require boosting turnout among Hispanics, African Americans, young people and unmarried women younger than 50, all of whom tend to sit out elections when there is no presidential race.

Beyond turnout mechanics, McAuliffe’s big opportunity is the record of his opponent. Cuccinelli has pretty much represented the gold standard of Christian Right/Tea Party conservatism, taking a central position in the legal battle against ObamaCare, championing the most extreme anti-abortion policies, and most recently, splitting with sitting Republican governor Bob McDonnell on the incumbent’s signature transportation package. He’s lucky that the putative GOP nominee he pushed aside, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, has foresworn an independent candidacy this year. And Cooch’s recently published book is a veritable oppo-research gold mine, full of radical ravings.

For all of the two candidates’ national notoriety, a recent Quinnipiac poll of Virginia, which gave the Republican a one-point lead, showed surprisingly low name-ID for both, and particularly for McAuliffe (whose 2009 primary campaign was short-lived and underwhelming).

It’s all the more reason this will be a campaign dominated by early negative advertising, as both camps seek to define the opposition before it can define itself.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.