If it hadn’t been for the late fiscal crisis, you can bet that political junkies everywhere would have been paying closer attention to the Virginia governor’s race. And many in their shutdown obsession may write off the likely Terry McAuliffe win as a product of the backlash in the federal-employee heavy Commonwealth against GOP fiscal brinkmanship.
But the truth is T-Mac has led Ken Cuccinelli in every public poll taken in Virginia since July, and in all but one since April. The government shutdown has made it virtually impossible for Cooch to mount any kind of comeback, but he was in deep trouble anyway.
Today at National Journal Ron Brownstein notes that McAuliffe is the first viable Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate who hasn’t gone through some sort of effort to distance himself from the national party’s cultural liberalism. In 2001 Mark Warner had his NASCAR vehicle and his “Sportsmen For Warner” group (I was living in rural central Virginia at the time, and recall seeing those jumbo yard signs featuring a rod-and-reel and a shooting iron everywhere). And even in 2005, when Tim Kaine pretty much wrote off rural Virginia and concentrated on the suburbs, a key moment in the campaign was his success in turning attacks on his opposition to the death penalty into a validation of his religious fidelity.
T-Mac isn’t bothering with any of defensive stuff, and is instead lustily ripping into Cuccinelli for the Republican’s faith-based hostility to abortion, contraception and gay marriage. Says Brownstein:
Virginia Democrats have increasingly decided that failing to motivate their “coalition of the ascendant” is a greater electoral risk than alienating right-leaning whites. With that conclusion, they are following the precedent set by Obama in his reelection campaign when he aggressively leaned left on social issues.
Shifting population patterns have allowed—even pressured—Virginia Democrats to execute this shift. Geographically, as my colleague David Wasserman has calculated, socially liberal Northern Virginia, swelled by a vibrant technology sector, is steadily marching toward 30 percent of the statewide vote. Meanwhile, the downscale white Appalachian counties that Republicans have targeted with their “war on coal” campaign against McAuliffe (and Obama) have dipped to less than 10 percent.
Demographically, the state is growing better educated and more diverse, enlarging the strongest Democratic constituencies. Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll showed McAuliffe winning just one-third of noncollege whites but capturing almost half of college-educated whites (including a majority of such women), most young voters, and a commanding three-fourths of minorities. That tracked Obama’s winning coalition and was enough for a nearly double-digit overall lead.
As the Virginia race heads to its final days, it will often be noted that in the last nine gubernatorial elections there the party holding the White House has lost (Mills Godwin’s 1973 victory was the last win by the incumbent presidential party). As I argued in a long-lost FiveThirtyEight post four years ago, there are a lot of coincidences in that data point, and it probably has more to do with Virginia political rhythms than anything happening in Washington. But it’s still going to make a T-Mac victory a very big deal.