Five things to know about this year’s most important election

Posted at 6:56 AM, Nov 04, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-04 06:56:48-05

RICHMOND, Virginia (CNN) — The Virginia governor’s race, billed as the marquee battle of an otherwise anticlimactic 2013 election cycle, is shaping up to be a foregone conclusion.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the longtime political fixer and moneyman, hasn’t trailed in a poll since May. Barring a political miracle, Republican Ken Cuccinelli will be delivering a concession speech on Tuesday evening in Richmond.

In recent cycles, the Virginia race has been a key off-year barometer of national political sentiment. Four years ago, Republican Bob McDonnell won in blowout fashion, a victory that presaged the following year’s GOP midterm wave. In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine captured the governor’s mansion, tapping into anxiety about President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.

Not so this year. The McAuliffe-Cuccinelli race has been defined by small-bore issues and character attacks rather than sweeping national concerns.

But despite the lack of late fireworks, there are plenty of crucial insights to be gleaned from the Virginia campaign.

Here’s what you need to know about this year’s most important race:

1. The 2012 playbook is still potent for Democrats

McAuliffe isn’t exactly squeaky-clean. A longtime wheeler-dealer who has been less than forthcoming with his tax returns, “the Macker” has a history of eyebrow-raising business ventures that make for dangerous campaign fodder. The opposition research book on the former Democratic National Committee chairman is as thick a Virginia live oak.

But Democrats have successfully turned the race into a referendum on Cuccinelli, defining him over the summer as a right-wing zealot. A Washington Post poll last week showed that two-thirds of McAuliffe supporters said they were voting against Cuccinelli, rather than for McAuliffe.

How did the Dems do it? With a relentless focus on Cuccinelli’s conservative record on women’s health issues, a playbook that President Barack Obama’s campaign employed to great effect in 2012 against GOP nominee Mitt Romney. And Romney was never as conservative as Cuccinelli.

“It is impossible to be the candidate of the tea party and still be the candidate of the center,” argued McAuliffe’s pollster, Geoff Garin.

In TV ad after TV ad, voters in this swing state were told of Cuccinelli’s record on abortion, contraception and domestic violence. Some of the claims were stretches maybe, but welcome to politics.

At the same time, McAuliffe “seized the center,” his campaign aides say, drawing some business-friendly Republican politicians and a few GOP donors to his side.

The message from Republicans has been muddy.

One week, they were hitting McAuliffe over a sputtering car company he founded, and the next they were calling attention to his attempts to expand a business venture in China. Thoughout the race, Cuccinelli’s campaign has called McAuliffe “deeply unserious” — even running a memorable ad with a clip of McAuliffe downing a shot of rum on live television — but none of the attacks seemed to stick.

The unwavering Democratic assault has worked.

Romney lost the state last year while losing women by 9 points. The gender gap is much worse for Cuccinelli. In some polls, Cuccinelli trails McAuliffe among women by more than 20 points. That’s a huge problem in a state where more than half of voters in 2012 were women, many of them from the moderate Washington suburbs.

2. Democrats are outspending Republicans

It doesn’t happen often in campaigns, but Democrats have already won the money war in Virginia.

It helps that McAuliffe is one of the Democratic Party’s most prolific fundraisers, running in a state with porous campaign finance laws. He’s collected more than $34 million this cycle, tapping a deep donor Rolodex dating back to the Bill Clinton years that includes media executive Haim Saban, California business maven Ron Burkle and Silicon Valley golden boy Sean Parker. Labor unions have also been generous contributors.

Cuccinelli has collected much less this year, nearly $20 million. One reason for the smaller haul: A number of reliable Republican donors, anxious about Cuccinelli’s social agenda, have held back their support. Some have even raised money for McAuliffe, including the Virginia homebuilder Dwight Schar, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman who supported McDonnell during his 2009 campaign.

The same tale is true with outside groups. Liberal outfits such as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and NextGen Climate Action have ponied up big for McAuliffe, while their counterparts on the right have been far less generous.

Democrats have vastly outspent Republicans on the television airwaves. Last week, McAuliffe and his Democratic allies outspent Cuccinelli and Republicans on TV by a four to one margin, according to a Democrat familiar with ad spending in the race.

Cuccinelli has relied on the backing of the Republican Governors Association, one of the country’s better-funded campaign committees, but its Democratic counterparts managed to keep pace. The RGA spent $8 million on the race, while the Democratic Governors Association put in $6.5 million, lending a crucial lifeline to the McAuliffe campaign earlier this year when their cash flow wasn’t as hot.

3. Cuccinelli is betting on conservative turnout

The Cuccinelli campaign’s slogan in the final weeks of the race might as well be “independents be damned.”

Trailing McAuliffe among independent voters by a 15-point margin, and doing even worse with women voters, Cuccinelli has spent the fall trying to stir the passions of the Republican base in hopes that fired-up conservatives could make up the difference a low turnout, nonpresidential election in which Democrats stay home.

In the closing days, Cuccinelli is trying to turn the race into a referendum on the Affordable Care Act, a still-controversial law that’s suffering from enrollment problems. But he’s been trying to rally the right for weeks, giving interviews to conservative media outlets and bringing in an all-star team of Republican surrogates to join him on the campaign trail.

Among the team players who’ve made the trip to Old Dominion: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Cuccinelli is also trying to bring libertarian voters back into the fold by campaigning with former Texas Rep. Ron Paul on Monday. A libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, has performed surprisingly well in the polls, and it’s hurting Cuccinelli, whose crusading social conservative views don’t exactly square with the limited-government crowd. Polls show Republicans slightly less supportive of Cuccinelli than Democrats are of McAuliffe.

Cuccinelli’s closing strategy is a fitting one. He captured the GOP nomination at a party convention in May, nominated by a small batch of the party’s most hard-core conservative activists. Now he’s counting on them to finish what they started.

4. The real action is down-ballot

With Democrats bullish on their chances at winning the governorship and the lieutenant governor’s race — in which Republicans nominated a long-shot candidate, the fiery former pastor E.W. Jackson — close watchers of the campaign are eyeing the attorney general’s race, shaping up to be Tuesday’s only real toss-up.

Democrats haven’t swept all three statewide offices in Virginia since 1989, when L. Douglas Wilder became the nation’s first African-American governor. It could happen again this year.

The AG race is a dogfight between two state senators, Democrat Mark Herring and Republican Mark Obenshain, and outside groups have started to inject serious money into the campaign.

In some ways, it’s a proxy war between the National Rifle Association and New York City’s anti-gun mayor, Michael Bloomberg. The NRA has funded a TV ad blitz accusing Herring of wanting to curtail gun rights, while a Bloomberg-backed super PAC, Independence USA, has come to Herring’s defense with a $1 million ad campaign painting Obenshain as a conservative extremist.

That’s not all. On the GOP side, the Republican State Leadership Committee has pumped nearly $2 million into Obenshain’s coffers. And the Democratic Party of Virginia, content with the state of play in the governor’s race, has spent the final week of the race turning its guns on Obenshain in an effort highlight his conservative voting record in Richmond.

5. It’s the Clintons’ gateway back into politics

For almost two decades, McAuliffe has been one of Bill Clinton’s dearest friends and most trusted advisers. The former president campaigned for McAuliffe in 2009, when he made an unsuccessful bid for the governor’s mansion, so it’s no surprise that he got involved again in 2013, hitting every corner of the commonwealth last week in a nine-city swing that drew enthusiastic crowds and generated boatloads of earned media.

And Clinton wasn’t shy about using the perch to point out a few of his accomplishments in the White House.

But it’s not just Bill: With McAuliffe looking sturdy in the polls down the stretch, the campaign provided Hillary Clinton with a low-risk way to ease back into campaign politics after spending the previous four years traveling the globe as secretary of state. With a possible 2016 presidential bid on the horizon, she made her first overtly political speech at a McAuliffe rally two weeks, drawing almost 600 people, many of them women, to a theater in northern Virginia.

Her speech was vintage Hillary, more prose than poetry, but the appearance gave her a chance to get in front of a partisan crowd and test drive some potential campaign themes of her own.

The Clintons have also used the Virginia race to get back in the fundraising game, hosting a number of closed-door finance events for McAuliffe and burnishing their relationships with the Democratic donor class in the process.

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