By a razor thin margin that was much closer than expected, Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton, will be the next governor of Virginia.
His election victory Tuesday over Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who campaigned touting his deep Tea Party connections and social conservative principles, reduces the number of Republican governors in the nation from 30 to 29.
“I am grateful to God for getting me through this race,” Cuccinelli said in his concession speech Tuesday night, fighting back tears.
National pollsters closely followed this showdown between McAuliffe, who has weak ties to Virginia, and Cuccinelli, who holds strong religious beliefs and homeschools his children, in hopes of discovering how voters may act in next year’s key congressional elections. But political observers trying to read the tea leaves in Virginia will have to look deeper than McAuliffe’s narrow win to determine if Democrats or Republicans have the advantage in 2014.
McAuliffe’s victory was closer than many had predicted in the days leading up to the vote. Observers had said it would be an easy and early victory for McAuliffe, suggesting that Virginia had turned solidly Democrat. But late into the night, hours after the polls closed, Cuccinelli held a slim lead, as precincts from the central and southern portions of the state remained solidly Republican.
But it was the counties in Northern Virginia close to Washington, D.C.—more populous and more closely tied to the federal government trough—that finally put McAuliffe over the top. Just like in President Barack Obama’s victories here in 2008 and 2012, McAuliffe won the D.C. suburbs solidly, including a 21-point margin in Fairfax County.
But McAuliffe’s overall margin of victory (with 99 percent of the precincts reporting) of less than 55,000 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast, suggests Virginia will remain a battleground state. (Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis picked up 7 percent of the vote.)
McAuliffe, who earned his political stripes through fundraising, out spent Cuccinelli by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. McAuliffe used the money to bombard Virginia’s airwaves with allegations that Cuccinelli was “too extreme for Virginia.” But in the end Cuccinelli lost by 3 percentage points (48 percent to 45 percent), despite predictions by some media outlets that Cuccinelli was facing a double-digit defeat. To more than a million Virginians, Cuccinelli’s social and fiscal conservatism were not too extreme. Some counties just outside the Washington Beltway that had been going for Democrats in recent Senate and presidential races turned Republican again for Cuccinelli.
The exit polls, which will be studied leading up to the 2014 elections, showed how Obamacare’s unpopularity helped bring Cuccinelli back into the race. Fifty-three percent of Virginia voters opposed Obamacare and 80 percent of those against Obamacare voted for Cuccinelli. Despite being outspent in the race by $15 million, Cuccinelli said in his concession speech the race came down to the wire because of the president's signature healthcare law.
“We said this race was a referendum on Obamacare,” Cuccinelli said. “Tonight you sent a message to the president of the United States that you believe that Virginia understands that Obamacare is a failure and that you want to be in charge of your healthcare and not the government. That message will go out across America tonight.”
Cuccinelli did not stop hammering away at Obamacare in the campaign’s closing weeks, and he did not let up on Tuesday night while conceding defeat. He attacked the Obama administration for falsely telling voters that they could keep their health insurance and their doctors under Obamacare.
“We were lied to by our own government in its efforts to restrict our liberty,” he said as the audience shouted “that’s right.”
The news was not good for Obama: 53 percent of Virginias in exit polls said they disapprove of his handling of the presidency. Republicans running across the nation in next year’s mid-term elections will look at how Cuccinelli used Obamacare to close the gap in the polls.
While Cuccinelli tied McAuliffe to Obamacare, McAuliffe attacked Cuccinelli by going after the Tea Party. More than 40 percent of Virginia voters said they opposed the Tea Party. But conservatives can take solace in the fact that more voters opposed Obamacare than the Tea Party. In a discouraging sign for social conservatives, exit polls showed that more than 60 percent of the voters said abortion should be legal. McAuliffe, who got 67 percent of the votes from those who favored abortion, ran numerous ads that attempted to tie abortion to women’s health rights.
Another religious conservative on the Virginia ballot, Republican and Baptist minister E.W. Jackson, lost to Democrat Ralph Northam in the lieutenant governor’s race, 55 percent to 45 percent (with 99 percent of the precincts reporting). Democrats also targeted Jackson by calling his views to extreme. (See Marvin Olasky’s recent interview with Jackson.)
In his victory speech, McAuliffe vowed to seek bipartisanship in the state capital of Richmond.
“Over the next three months I am going to work hard to reach out to every single Republican in the General Assembly,” McAuliffe promised.
But McAuliffe may have little choice when it comes to working with Republicans. Although some races were still too close to call early Wednesday morning, Virginia voters appear to have reelected a Republican supermajority to the state legislature. Those results put a dent into any predictions that Democrats will be able to regain control of the U.S. House next November.
“We fought for principles that were first articulated for the whole world by Virginians,” Cuccinelli said. “The battle goes on.”