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A McAuliffe Victory Isn't a Harbinger of Democratic Fortunes

Drew Angerer/Getty Images News

I’m pessimistic on the odds of a Democratic takeover of the House in November 2014. This November, "optimistic" understates my opinion of Terry McAuliffe's chances. At this point, the race is over. McAuliffe has built a 10 point lead in the polls and he’s outspending his opponent by a massive margin with one week to go. But it’s not because of the shutdown, and, even if it was, it wouldn't prove that the shutdown will carry Democrats back to power.

I have to admit that I am a tad surprised by McAuliffe’s total dominance of the campaign. Back in early May, I thought that the combination of Virginia’s off-year electorate and McAuliffe’s own weaknesses made this toss-up state “tilt” red. I thought that Cuccinelli would win in a contest of two equal evils, that McAuliffe would need “widespread revulsion” against Cuccinelli’s candidacy to prevail.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Since early May, just about everything has gone McAuliffe’s way. Virginia’s Republican Party imploded in a worst case scenario of scandal and extremism. McAuliffe, a former DNC fundraiser, had the dollars to hammer both points home. The attacks on McAuliffe didn't resonate, or at least not enough. Cuccinelli’s original lead in the polls steadily eroded and then reversed; today, Cuccinelli’s favorability rating is 20 points under water.

Over the last few weeks, it’s become fashionable to suggest that the shutdown dealt a significant blow to Cuccinelli. Nate Silver has already treaded this ground, but I'm going to retread it. I just don’t see the evidence. McAuliffe already built a modest but clear lead, founded on a massive favorability gap and a massive advertising advantage. He was going to win. Period.

McAuliffe’s lead has grown by a handful of points, at most, since the shutdown. Why assume the shutdown was the cause? After all, McAuliffe had been steadily gaining ground since the early summer. As more voters tuned into the race and McAuliffe’s campaign saturated the airwaves, why wouldn’t McAuliffe’s lead continue to grow?

To be fair, McAuliffe was probably helped by the shutdown. How couldn’t he have been? But how many of those three extra, superfluous points was the shutdown worth? All of it? Who knows. The instinct to assert that the shutdown was decisive is even worse, especially in the presence of a convincing, alternative explanations for McAuliffe’s large and growing advantage. You know, crushing an already pulverized opponent with a 5:1 spending advantage.

It’s also tempting to wonder whether Virginia means anything for 2010. Well, it’s certainly possible. At first glance, there's an appealing story here: I thought the race tilted Republican, and yet now it’s strongly Democratic thanks to the sour GOP brand and a fundamentally flawed Republican candidate. That’s basically the argument for a big Democratic year. On the other hand, Virginia is a PVI-even state—there are only 8 Republican House seats that are so favorable. This is also an open race—and, so far, there’s only 1 open seat held by Republicans on relatively competitive turf.

Here's a thought: maybe the better analogy to 2014 would be beating Governor Bob McDonnell in a hypothetical reelection contest. His approval rating is at plus-10, 46-36, in the latest Quinnipiac poll; 53-31 in NBC/Marist, which came after the shutdown. Could Democrats beat him this November? Perhaps, but those numbers don’t make it look like it. To be fair, McDonnell isn't a perfect analogy, either. He's not tied to the national GOP. But it does illustrate the tendency for the challenging party to fare better in an open contest.

So although it’s tempting to think that the narrative of the Virginia gubernatorial contest is reminiscent of the national narrative, the race is quite different than those that will determine control of the House. There just aren’t many Ken Cuccinelli’s holding House seats in relatively competitive districts.