The Secret Weapon In The Virginia Governor’s Race Isn’t What You Think

In perhaps the most uninspiring election this cycle, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli are locked in a battle to emerge as Virginia’s “least objectionable” candidate for governor. Public Policy Polling’s just released analysis of the race concludes that voters are increasingly turning away from both candidates as they learn more about their backgrounds and positions.

That’s not the normal trend, but it’s also not normal to have an election where voters dislike both candidates five months out:

That’s the case here. Terry McAuliffe is not popular, with 29% of voters holding a favorable opinion of him to 33% with a negative one. But we find that Ken Cuccinelli is even more unpopular, with 44% of voters rating him unfavorably to just 32% with a positive opinion. As a result we find McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by a 5 point margin, 42/37. McAuliffe also led by 5 points on our January poll, but the share of voters who are undecided has spiked from 13% at the start of the year now up to 21%.

Cuccinelli has a big problem with independent voters. Only 25% have a favorable opinion of him to 51% with a negative one, and he trails McAuliffe by 11 points with them at 39/28. Democrats are also a little bit more sold on McAuliffe with 82% supporting him right now, while 78% of Republicans are committed to Cuccinelli.

Democrats shouldn’t crow over McAuliffe’s 5-point lead when 21 percent of Virginia voters remain undecided — up from 13 percent in January. Low-interest, off-year gubernatorial elections are typically not kind to Democrats who need decent turnout from base voters particularly in more centrist/independent states like Virginia. Although President Obama won Virginia two elections in a row, his presence does not ensure Democratic advantages. As PBS NewsHour reported in an early overview of the election, “No candidate from the party of the sitting president has won a gubernatorial race in Virginia since 1973.”

The extreme positions of Cuccinelli alone will not deliver the McAuliffe team to victory. There are plenty of far-right voters in the state who can rally around his well-defined conservative vision (however odious) and tilt an election with little or no voter interest. Instead of running out the clock, McAuliffe needs to give core Democrats a reason to support him. He needs, in other words, to explain why, in terms of policies and values, he’s a candidate progressives would want to support, not one that they’d have to by default.

There’s a good model for this type of campaign in Virginia’s recent political history — Tim Kaine’s 2005 campaign for governor.  Kaine, a lifelong devout Catholic, frequently invoked his faith on the campaign trail to define the context for his positions on things like public service, commitment to the poor, and abortion and the death penalty (Kaine opposed both but argued in the campaign that he would uphold existing Virginia law which allows both). His Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore, tried to hammer Kaine for his opposition to the death penalty and failed dismally. Why? Because Kaine took the criticism head-on. His defense of his own values gave voters a reason to believe that the then-candidate would make for a principled governor.  As the Washington Monthly reported at the time:

In 1987, while representing a death-row inmate convicted of murdering a widow, he told reporters before the man’s execution: “Murder is wrong in the gulag, in Afghanistan, in Soweto, in the mountains of Guatemala, in Fairfax County… even in the Spring Street Penitentiary [here].” During his campaign for lieutenant governor, he also called for a state moratorium on the death penalty.

Throughout the campaign, Kaine’s opponent–former attorney general Jerry Kilgore–has pounced on that opposition. In their July debate, Kilgore suggested that Kaine might offer clemency to all death row inmates. Yet Kaine swung back with his faith. Kaine responded, “Jerry–I’ll state it again, and I’ll state it clearly: I am not going to apologize to you for my religious belief that life is sacred.”

After trailing for most the election cycle, Kaine took a late lead in the race and went on to win a solid 52 percent of the vote.   By talking candidly about his faith and motivations, Kaine was able to reach out to an ideologically diverse set of voters across the state and drive stronger support among his base.

Now, this “politics of definition” strategy may work better for someone like Kaine who has a well-known history of Catholic activism. But McAuliffe is surely not the caricature of a deal-making businessman and partisan that is often invoked when describing him. Like Kaine, he is a serious Catholic who regularly attends Mass and went to both Catholic University and Georgetown Law. You wouldn’t know from any of his current campaign materials that this strong faith has any bearing whatsoever on what he believes in politically. His ads play up his business experience and ability to work across partisan lines more than his core beliefs. These are important qualities, but they don’t give people a reason to believe in you and turnout in an otherwise boring election cycle.

In an election when your opponent is vulnerable to charges of extremism, it is tempting to engage in trench warfare and grind out a “lesser of two evils” victory.  But standing for something clear and concrete, based on real values and beliefs that define a person’s reason for seeking public service, always motivates more people to support your campaign and trust in your ability to lead. Ask Tim Kaine and Barack Obama.