Up until the returns came in last November, many Republicans were still in denial about Virginia. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory there showed that a changing population had altered the assumption that it was a reliably red state. But Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial landslide the following year allowed Republicans to believe that the 2008 result was an anomaly. However, Obama’s narrow margin last fall made it apparent that the Old Dominion must be regarded as, at best, a purple state rather than a GOP stronghold. If there was any remaining doubt about that it, looks as if this year’s race for governor will confirm it. A new poll from Quinnipiac shows Democrat Terry McAuliffe with a six-point lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli among likely voters. While such a margin shows that the race is still competitive, it is significant given the avalanche of bad publicity in recent weeks about the Democratic candidate’s ethical shortcomings. If McAuliffe can a survive a summer of bad press and emerge with his biggest lead of the year, then he’s in good shape heading into the homestretch this fall.
McAuliffe’s ability to overcome polls that show voters are divided on the question of his honesty can be attributed in part to Cuccinelli’s reputation as a candidate of the hard right as well as the way Governor McDonnell’s serious ethical lapses have overshadowed any attention devoted to the Democratic candidate’s questionable private-sector activities. But no matter how you choose to spin the various elements that have produced a race that appears tilting to McAuliffe, the inability of Cuccinelli to overcome these factors must be put down primarily to the changing electoral landscape of Virginia. If even a tarnished candidate like McAuliffe can be this far ahead at this point in the race, it is a sign that the days of Red Virginia are at an end.
In a more GOP-friendly environment, McDonnell’s problems (which have put an end to any talk about him having a political future) might not be dragging Cuccinelli down. Nor would the attempts of the liberal mainstream media to tar the Republican candidate as an extremist be working quite as well if Republicans could still count on the more conservative southern and western parts of the state being able to turn out votes that could overwhelm the margins Democrats racked up in the northern districts close to Washington. But, as the last two presidential contests showed, that is no longer the case.
The Republicans may be working on the assumption that the off-year turnout for the Democrats in 2013 will resemble that of 2009 when McDonnell won rather than 2012 when large numbers of minority and young voters helped Obama hold Virginia. But the ability of a flawed and not terribly popular Democrat to stay ahead of Cuccinelli speaks not only to the Republicans’ problems but also to the fact that the state has to be seen as tilting to the left.
All politics is local, but if these numbers hold up in November, this is a very bad sign for the GOP. The conventional wisdom is that the national turnout in the 2014 midterms will be drastically down from that of 2012 and look more like the 2010 numbers when the Tea Party revolution helped generate a Republican landslide that took back the House of Representatives. That may well be the case, but the Virginia governor’s race could show that Democrats have the ability to turn out their voters in sufficient numbers to hold onto battleground states even in off-year elections.
Coming as it always does the year after the presidential election, the Virginia race is often seen as a bellwether. That will be even more the case this year since the only significant election this November—the New Jersey’s governor’s race—is a foregone conclusion with Chris Christie coasting to an easy win.
Despite the predictions of doom from the liberal press about the future of the Republican Party, 2014 looks to be a golden opportunity for the GOP to win back the Senate and set themselves up nicely for 2016. But Virginia presents an ominous indication that talk of changing demographics with larger numbers of minority voters is not merely liberal hype. Conservatives who believe their party shouldn’t worry about trying to attract Hispanics or blacks or independents need to look closely at Virginia this year and see that their assumptions about turnout may wind up being as misleading as they were last year when Romney lost. Complacence about changing demographics is a luxury Republicans can’t afford.