Why Terry McAuliffe Won In Virginia


Virginia Governor-Elect Terry McAuliffe (D)

Virginia Governor-Elect Terry McAuliffe (D)

Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on Tuesday to become the next governor of Virginia — in a race that Cuccinelli had termed a “referendum on Obamacare.” But an examination of the issues the made up the battleground of the race shows that the Affordable Care Act was just one of several progressive ideas that McAuliffe fully embraced and Cuccinelli fully opposed.

Virginia has historically been a conservative-leaning swing state. It backed every Republican presidential nominee from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush and elected a Republican governor by a 59 to 41 landslide in 2009. While the state has one of the highest percentages of federal employees, polls showed McAuliffe’s lead remained fairly steady before and after the shutdown and Cuccinelli himself dismissed it as largely forgotten factor before Election Day.

Though McAuliffe’s principal argument of “putting jobs first” was not controversial and attracted prominent GOP supporters, in campaign ads, debates, and online, his progressive positions were front and center:

Women’s Health: McAuliffe seized early and often on Cuccinelli’s crusade against contraception, abortion, and women’s health clinics. Five separate McAuliffe ads focused on Cuccinelli’s support for a radical personhood bill that could have banned all abortion (even in cases of rape and incest) and common forms of birth control, as well as his efforts to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. Cuccinelli, while downplaying how much he’d focus on these issues as governor, responded by charging that McAuliffe’s supported “taxpayer-funded abortions and abortion for sex selection,” views called “far out-of-line with mainstream Virginians.” Additionally, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia spent more than $200,000 in independent expenditures in support of McAuliffe.

Obamacare Implementation: McAuliffe has made his support for Medicaid expansion a major part of his plan and in debates hammered Cuccinelli for his unwillingness to take the billions of dollars available from the federal government for health insurance for poor Virginians. As McAuliffe said he’d push the legislature to enact the expansion, Cuccinelli ran ads attacking Obamacare and McAuliffe’s willingness to implement it. Boasting of being the “first state attorney general” to file an unsuccessful court challenge to the Affordable Care Act, Cuccinelli asked at rallies, “Why should we expand failure?”

Climate Science: McAuliffe, a proponent of clean energy and environmental conservation made Cuccinelli’s climate-change denial a liability. In debates, campaign events, and a television spot, he hammered Cuccinelli’s illegal witchhunt against a University of Virginia climate scientist and slammed Cuccinelli’s cozy tieswith thefossil fuel industry. Cuccinelli ran an ad of his own accusing McAuliffe of wanting a “war on coal” and encouraging audiences to exhale carbon dioxide just to annoy the Environmental Protection Agency. NextGen Climate Action spent more than $2.4 million on ads of their own about Cuccinelli’s controversial relationship with Consol Energy.

Gun Violence Prevention: In the National Rife Association’s home state, McAuliffe made no secret of his strong support for universal background checks for gun purchases. In an October debate at Virginia Tech, site of the 2007 shootings that killed 32 people, Cuccinelli made it clear that he he opposed universal background checks and was proud of his “A” rating from the NRA. After Cuccinelli noted McAuliffe’s “F” rating from group, the Democrat responded forcefully, saying, “I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA. As governor, I want to make sure our communities are safe. I never want to see another Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech ever again.” The NRA’s political arm spent more than half a million dollars on the race, running ads claiming that McAuliffe would “take away your freedom” and “ration guns.” Independence USA PAC, a group created by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) to fight against illegal guns, spent more than $1.7 million on ads critical of Cuccinelli’s opposition to background checks.

LGBT Equality: Beyond just expressing full support for LGBT equality — rights Cuccinelli led the fight against as a state legislator and as attorney general — McAuliffe made LGBT rights an issue. In every debate, McAuliffe hit Cuccinelli for telling an anti-LGBT group in 2008, “When you look at the homosexual agenda, I cannot support something that I believe brings nothing but self-destruction, not only physically but of their soul.” At first, Cuccinelli reaffirmed that his views on what he termed “the personal challenge of homosexuality” had not changed — but later complained that any mention of his previous comments were “personal attacks” and “offensively false.” Cuccinelli got support from anti-LGBT icon Rick Santorum, the National Organization for Marriage, and the Family Research Council‘s PAC — while McAuliffe received backing from the Human Rights Campaign.

The fact that historically conservative Virginia backed a candidate who ran on a progressive platform is a repudiation of the conservative agenda and an indication that progressive ideas like marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, affordable healthcare, background checks, and climate change action are all now mainstream positions.


An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s expenditures to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

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