Ken Cuccinelli was justifiably written off as dead: Thirty-eight consecutive surveys showed McAuliffe ahead, ultimately by about 7.2 point in the final HuffPost Model Estimate. This was the race that was supposed to highlight how the Tea Party and the shutdown endangered the GOP’s iron grip on the House, offering the perfect contrast to Christie’s rout in New Jersey. But in the end, McAuliffe won by a slight margin: Only 2.15 points, at the moment. It doesn’t bode well for Democrats in 2014.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a great explanation for how the race got so close. Twitter is already attributing Cuccinelli’s apparent surge to a backlash against the Affordable Care Act, but I’d be far more amenable to that explanation if there was, you know, any evidence. One bit of circumstantial evidence could have been a shift in the polls back toward Cuccinelli after the shutdown, but there just wasn’t much movement. Moreover, Geoff Garin, the McAuliffe campaign’s pollster, said their final poll showed McAuliffe up by just 3 points. All considered, the likeliest explanation is that McAuliffe never had a lead as large as the public polls suggested, raising more questions about whether non-response was helping inflate Democrats in the polls.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether there was a last minute shift, or whether the polls were just wrong. No matter what, Cuccinelli was relatively competitive in race where everything went wrong. He was decidedly outspent. His party never unified around his candidacy and a libertarian candidate was there to take advantage. The government shutdown probably didn’t help. And, of course, Cuccinneli was a pretty flawed candidate in his own right, and that was before he was bedeviled by ethics challenges (including those that weren’t his own). Cuccinelli had no business being in the race, and yet the margin is quite close. There aren’t many occasions when the results demand “Wednesday morning quarterbacking,” but this is a race that the GOP probably would have won if it only made half as many mistakes.
But although Republicans should be kicking themselves about blowing yet another competitive states, the fact that the race was so close should leave them feeling relatively confident heading into 2014—their own record of political malpractice notwithstanding. Virginia was supposedly ground zero for the government shutdown, the shutdown that supposedly stirred a Democratic wave capable of excising Republicans from safely conservative districts. But McAuliffe couldn't win by a wide margin in all but ideal conditions. Most significantly, McAuliffe made few, if any, inroads into GOP territory. McAuliffe did as bad as President Obama in coal country and western Virginia, the exact sort of places where Democrats need to rebound to retake the House. In comparison, Tim Kaine won significant chunks of Republican-leaning terrain in 2005. That’s exactly what Democrats need to win back the House, and if a perfect storm couldn't produce those gains, then there's plenty of cause to question whether Democrats can retake the ground necessary to win the House in twelve months.