Election preview: Virginia

There don’t seem to be any elections of note this weekend, but it’s worth taking an advance look at one being held next Tuesday (particularly since many Victorian readers won’t be at their desks again before then). The US state of Virginia votes to elect a new governor and other state-level positions.

Only two states hold their main elections in odd-numbered years – the other is New Jersey, which we’ll talk about on Monday – so it’s inevitable that they get quite a bit of national attention. They’re both big states, and Virginia has the added advantage of having been an important “swing” state in recent presidential elections. (Not to mention being just across the river from Washington.)

The other noteworthy thing about Virginia is that its governors are barred from serving consecutive terms, so no candidate starts with the advantage of incumbency. However, the lieutenant governor and attorney-general are both separately elected, and it’s quite common for one or both of them to then seek the governorship – as is the case this year, where the incumbent attorney-general is a candidate (more about him shortly).

With those somewhat distinctive features, Virginia has achieved a remarkable record of consistency. For the last nine elections, the winning candidate for governor has come from the opposite party to the incumbent president every time. No president since Richard Nixon has seen someone from his party become governor of Virginia, not even those who had carried the state decisively in the previous year’s presidential election.

This year, that record looks like being broken. With a Democrat in the White House, the Democrat candidate in Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has an apparently unassailable lead, having been ahead in every published opinion poll since July. RealClearPolitics currently gives him an averaged lead of 8.5% over his Republican opponent, sitting attorney-general Ken Cuccinelli.

It’s hard not to see a national lesson in this, since Cuccinelli could almost be the tea partier from central casting. He is rabidly hostile to Barack Obama in general and his health care legislation in particular (he filed a challenge to it five minutes after it became law); he is also a climate change denialist, strongly nativist on immigration issues, opposed to gay rights and virulently anti-choice.

On all these positions he seems out of step with his increasingly liberal and cosmopolitan state. The Democrats’ relative position in Virginia has been steadily improving; Obama carried it last year with 52% of the two-party vote. A mainstream Republican is still well placed – as was incumbent Bob McDonnell, who won comfortably in 2009 – but not someone of Cuccinelli’s stripe. (His running mate for lieutenant governor is even crazier.)

McAuliffe’s lead is all the more striking because he is far from an ideal candidate. Head of the Democratic National Committee in the early 2000s, he is closely associated with the Clintons, having chaired Hillary’s 2008 campaign as well as Bill’s in 1996. He is known as a shameless fundraiser, and to many people represents the most unsavory face of the Clinton era.

It’s no doubt a measure of dissatisfaction with both candidates that the third-party contender, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, is polling well – up to 12% in some polls. Probably most of his voters started out as Republicans, although it doesn’t follow that his presence in the race is hurting Cuccinelli; some may be using him as a convenient way station towards shifting to the Democrats. (Note the relevance here of yesterday’s discussion about varieties of libertarians.)

The gap may well narrow before Tuesday: opinion polls might be exaggerating the turnout, or McAuliffe’s negatives might impress people more when they’re actually in the voting booth, or some Libertarians might return to the Republican fold. But it’s hard to see Cuccinelli being able to pull off a win from here, and if he goes down, it should be another cue for soul-searching in the national Republican Party.

All 100 seats in the House of Delegates, the lower house of the state legislature, are also up for election. Republicans currently hold a 36-seat majority, and while it’s possible that may be trimmed a bit there is no prospect of it being overturned.

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