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Things Are Looking Up for Terry McAuliffe

Just over two months ago, I wrote that Terry McAuliffe had to overcome a big challenge to win Virginia’s gubernatorial contest: a white and old off-year electorate. In a state where Democrats are dependent on non-white and young voters, McAuliffe would need to compensate for low turnout by faring much better among white and older voters than President Obama. That made Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli a favorite in a race of two equal evils: McAuliffe might need “widespread revulsion to Cuccinelli’s candidacy but not McAuliffe’s.” Two months later, that scenario seems very realistic.

Just eleven days after that article, McAuliffe received a gift in the form of E.W. Jackson—the GOP’s nominee for Lt. Governor, who's effectively Cuccinneli’s running mate. To be blunt: Jackson is not the guy you want as your running mate. A few of his greatest hits, courtesy of TNR’s Molly Redden: “Jackson, who is black, argues that homosexuality, through HIV/AIDS, is ‘killing black men by the thousands,’ and that liberal groups supporting gay rights ‘have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and slavery and Jim Crow ever did.’”

This is a big problem for Cuccinelli. The Democratic game plan was to boost turnout and run-up the margins in the moderate, well-educated suburbs of northern Virginia by depicting Cuccinelli as a cultural extremist. They certainly had ammunition. Cuccinelli defended Virginia’s anti-Sodomy laws, thinks gay marriage justifies polygamy, stated that “homosexual acts” are wrong, and he’s pro-life. But those attacks might not have been as powerful as Democrats hoped—the attacks on Governor Bob McDonnell’s cultural views didn’t stop him from winning Fairfax County. Regardless of how McAuliffe's attacks would have fared before, there's not much question that they're far more likely to resonate with Jackson on the ticket. He's reinforcing Cuccinelli's biggest weakness.

McDonnell is becoming a problem, too. Just a few months ago, McDonnell seemed like a boon to Cuccinelli’s candidacy: He had high approval ratings and was perceived as an effective governor. Now, McDonnell is embroiled in scandal, which presents big problems for Cuccinelli. The most serious problem is that Cuccinelli has at least a few ties with Mr. Williams. Democrats will play up those connections and charge that Cuccinelli is part of the problem, even if he is never implicated in the investigation. It’s possible that McAuliffe, the consummate insider, can’t take full advantage of Cuccinelli’s weakness. But this was supposed to be Cuccinelli’s big advantage—he was the prosecutor, McAuliffe the dirty dealer. Now Cuccinelli will struggle to exploit McAuliffe’s vulnerability.

So far, these issues haven’t moved the head-to-head numbers, mainly because persuadable voters just aren’t paying attention yet. According to a PPP poll out today, 57 percent of voters don’t have an opinion of Jackson; 30 percent don’t have an opinion of McAuliffe, and 22 percent don’t have an opinion of Cuccinelli. As a result, there are plenty of undecided voters, with McAuliffe and Cuccinelli only combining to hold 78 percent of the vote. But voters who are paying attention are souring on the Republican candidates. PPP shows Jackson’s favorability at minus-13, 15-28; Cuccinelli is at minus-15, 32-47; and McDonnell’s approval rating is down 12 points since last month, to 36 percent.

No, McAuliffe will never be Mr. Popular. His favorability rating is underwater at minus-2. But for now, McAuliffe is merely unlikable, while Cuccinelli’s cultural views, Jackson’s extremism, and McDonnell’s ethical problems raise the real possibility of widespread revulsion toward the Republican ticket. McAuliffe will have the resources to exploit the GOP’s weakness. The former Clinton fundraiser has a big financial edge, with 6 million on-hand compared to Cuccinelli’s 2.7 million. In a polarized state like Virginia, the race will probably stay close. But as the campaign gets under way and the ads turn negative, it's easy to envision McAuliffe solidifying a modest lead. At this point, you’d rather be McAuliffe.