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McAuliffe Narrowly Tops Cuccinelli in Va.

McAuliffe Narrowly Tops Cuccinelli in Va.

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 6, 2013

The $50 million, scandal-laced, mud-slinging race for governor of Virginia came to a dramatic close Tuesday night, as Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli, 48 percent to 46 percent.

Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis garnered 7 percent of the support.

McAuliffe’s victory -- which eluded him four years ago when he lost the party primary to Creigh Deeds — was expected, but came by a much closer margin than had been projected ahead of Election Day. Final returns from bellwether Northern Virginia counties near Washington, D.C., came nearly three hours after the polls closed, propelling McAuliffe past his opponent. Still, the Democrat made a bit of history by breaking a three-decade tradition of Virginia voters choosing a governor from the opposing party of the president.

McAuliffe led in the polls for several months, his standing bolstered by female voters responding to his portrayal of Cuccinelli as bad for women on the issues of health care, divorce, domestic abuse, and contraception. CNN exit polls indicate that the message resonated, as 60 percent of voters said abortion should be legal while 35 percent said it should be illegal. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell benefited from a nine-point advantage among women on his way to defeating Deeds -- a victory that was seen as a rebuke of newly elected President Obama, who had been the first Democrat in four decades to win Virginia. Republicans then claimed the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010.

McAuliffe’s win is also significant for his wooing of independent voters, a key constituency in this now-purple state. The former chairman of the Democratic National Committee often touted endorsements from Republicans and his support for McDonnell’s transportation bill, which passed this year in the traffic-congested commonwealth with bipartisan support.

In the final days of the race, Cuccinelli framed it as a referendum on Obamacare, running ads suggesting that a vote for his opponent would be a vote for the controversial health care law. The Republican attorney general hoped the Affordable Care Act’s flawed implementation and the number of newly canceled insurance policies would spark conservative voters and drag down McAuliffe, who brought the president, Vice President Joe Biden, and Bill and Hillary Clinton to the state to campaign for him. Despite the loss, Republicans will point to exit polling showing 50 percent of voters oppose the health care law (48 percent support it), according to CNN. The same exit polls also found 53 percent disapprove of the president, while 46 percent approve.

Democrats, on the other hand, characterized the race as a choice between the “mainstream and the extreme,” pinning Cuccinelli to a damaged GOP brand after the government shutdown that they say harmed Virginia more than any other state. McAuliffe and his surrogates often invoked Ted Cruz on the campaign trail, assailing the conservative senator’s tactics and ideology in the shutdown impasse.

McAuliffe, a close friend of the Clintons’ and a prolific fundraiser, had a significant financial advantage over Cuccinelli, outraising him by $14 million, according to data complied by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Republicans portrayed McAuliffe as a wheeler-dealer who brokered shady business arrangements, pointing most often to troubles involving his GreenTech car company, including its failure to create promised jobs and an SEC investigation into the way it lured overseas investors. But Cuccinelli had troubles of his own, having accepted gifts from the Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams -- the man at the center of a scandal involving Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Cuccinelli returned his gifts and apologized early on in the race. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

Caitlin Huey-Burns

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