Anyone pondering the nature of the mismatch in the Virginia governor’s race need only have noted who is coming to the aid of the two candidates. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton stumped for Terry McAuliffe. Tomorrow, an even bigger name, husband Bill, will do the same. Who’s riding to the rescue of Republican Ken Cuccinelli? Rick Santorum is mobilizing a conservative “strike force” to aid a GOP candidate facing a deficit in the polls that is starting to look like it might be insurmountable. In other words McAuliffe, who leads by 17 points in the latest Rasmussen poll, may be on the verge of a decisive win that could seal Virginia’s drift from a status as a purple swing state to a blue Democratic state.
There are those who are attempting to blame Cuccinelli for this state of affairs and point out the state attorney general has suffered badly from Democratic attacks on his right-to-life positions. But this is unfair. The Cuccinelli-McAuliffe matchup at one point looked to be favorable to the Republicans. Though Democrats have piled on with every imaginable charge, Cuccinelli is actually a well-spoken conservative whose views are by no means out of step with his state. Moreover, McAuliffe remains a deeply flawed candidate whose associations with the worst elements of the Washington D.C. world of lobbyists, inside deals, and corruption should have made him vulnerable to a straight arrow like Cuccinelli (although he was tainted, if only by association, by Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethical lapses). But instead of being sunk by his record, McAuliffe is coasting to victory. The explanation for this can’t be found in an analysis of the two candidates or even their tactical campaign decisions. The swing to the left is the result of demographic changes that should have already alerted us to the fact that Virginia is now moving into the category of a fairly safe Democratic state.
Given the fact that only a few years ago, Republicans dominated the state’s politics and had a long streak of winning the state’s electoral votes, this is a startling turnabout that many in the GOP are only just now starting to comprehend. Right up until the returns indicated that Barack Obama had once again taken Virginia in last year’s presidential election, most Republicans simply assumed that Mitt Romney would take it. They though that Obama’s 2008 win was the exception and that McDonnell’s landslide win to take back the governor’s chair for the GOP (after Tim Kaine’s 2005 Democratic victory) was the rule. They were wrong. McDonnell’s victory may have been the last gasp for Virginia Republicans. It isn’t likely that anyone will assume, as many in the GOP did earlier this year, that a Republican victory is inevitable, in 2016 or 2017.
The reasons for this have little to do with Democratic canards about Cuccinelli’s supposed extremism and everything to do with the way the demography of the state has changed in recent years. Whereas in the past, the conservative-leaning southern, western, and rural areas offset the more liberal northern D.C. suburbs, that is no longer the case. Under the current circumstances, it will take an extraordinarily attractive Republican and a problematic Democrat to give the state to the GOP.
If anything, that means instead of Republican bulwark or even a true swing state, the better analogy for Virginia is Pennsylvania, a state with GOP strongholds but which is usually won by Democrats taking advantage of their massive advantage in the urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. While Republicans can win statewide races when the political winds are blowing in their direction (as they were in 2010 when even a staunch conservative like Pat Toomey was able to win a Senate seat), it will take a GOP earthquake for them to win it again in a presidential election when the Democrats are able to get a massive minority turnout. The same may hold now for Virginia. Those Republicans who are thinking a more moderate Republican could have done better than Cuccinelli are probably wrong. From now on, pundits should assume Virginia is trending blue until proven otherwise.