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Virginia Governor's Race Still Taking Shape

Virginia Governor's Race Still Taking Shape

By Scott Conroy - December 4, 2012

If Virginia’s political history is any indication, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has reason to be optimistic about winning election as governor in November.

Virginia is one of only two states that choose their governors in the year following a presidential election. And in the Old Dominion’s nine contests since 1977, the nominee from the party that lost the presidency the previous year has always won.

A favorite among his party’s base, Cuccinelli may be well-positioned to become the latest Virginia Republican to benefit from disproportionately high turnout among the conservative rank-and-file in a non-presidential election.

Four years ago, Bob McDonnell defeated his Democratic opponent by a hefty 17-point margin during President Obama’s turbulent first year in office. (Virginia law bars governors from serving consecutive terms, and so McDonnell -- like other incumbents before him -- cannot seek immediate re-election.)

Cuccinelli’s expected path to the Republican nomination was cleared last week when Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling announced that he would not run for the commonwealth’s highest office, citing his party’s decision to hold a nominating convention, rather than a contested statewide primary, to determine its standard-bearer.

In making the announcement, Bolling acknowledged that he faced long odds trying to defeat Cuccinelli in a convention dominated by a relatively small group of right-leaning activists.

Bolling added pointedly that he was “surprised and disappointed” by Cuccinelli’s decision to challenge him for the nomination and declined to rule out an independent or third-party challenge.

According to Virginia political analyst Jennifer Thompson, the potential that Bolling could launch a serious outside bid remains “very real,” though it will require significant financial support from both inside and outside the state.

“I think timing is everything, and if he is contemplating getting in the race, it was smart of him not to do it at this time,” Thompson said. “If you look at the interest groups in the state, I think there are business interests that will be more warming to a moderate Bolling than a conservative Cuccinelli. But really, this is going to be a national race. It’s not just going to be about Virginia dollars.”

As will undoubtedly be the case in New Jersey, site of the nation’s other 2013 gubernatorial race, Virginia’s contest is certain to be as expensive as it will be high-profile.

But in this state, a candidate’s ability to raise money has not always equated with electoral success: In his bid to win the 2009 Democratic nomination, former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe raised over $8 million but nonetheless suffered a 23-point primary trouncing at the hands of state Sen. Creigh Deeds.

Undeterred, McAuliffe is running again, and he recently benefited from some good political fortune when Democratic Sen. Mark Warner decided not to seek a return to the governor’s mansion, where he resided from 2002 to 2006.

McAuliffe spent Sunday on an attention-grabbing golf outing with President Obama, former President Clinton, and former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. The casual gathering served as a reminder of the extent to which McAuliffe stands to benefit from his strong Washington connections, particularly his close relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton, whose 2008 presidential campaign he chaired.

But McAuliffe’s valuable personal connections could again double as his biggest vulnerability.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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