My home state of Virginia is somewhat of an oddball state in electoral politics. First of all, I believe it’s the only state where counties and cities are completely separate entities, which can make a difference in voter targeting and turnout. It’s also one of the only states that holds its gubernatorial elections in off years, and doesn’t allow its governor to run for reelection. I like this, mostly because it gives political junkies like me something to obsess about during the sometimes boring lulls between federal cycles. And it makes every election an open seat race, heightening the drama and giving both candidates a feeling that they can win. Let’s break down each of the offices on the ballot and assess each candidate’s chances at this (still early) juncture (I’ll rate each race as leaning, likely, or safe for one candidate, or a toss-up):
Governor: This is being increasingly cast as a “lesser of two evils” race. Former Democratic National Committee and 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign chair Terry McAuliffe (D) is making another go at the governor’s mansion despite losing in the Democratic primary in 2009. It was somewhat surprising that no Democrat stepped up to challenge him given that. While McAuliffe’s liberal credentials are unquestionable, many wonder if he’s too liberal for Virginia, even as the state has moved closer to his column in recent elections. McAuliffe’s full-throated, red meat-laden stump speeches do little to dissuade this notion, and turn many voters off to him. He also has some egg on his face over Greentech, a green car company he founded and promised would create thousands of green jobs in Mississippi, but so far hasn’t produced many jobs or cars.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), the other combatant in this race, has his own liabilities. He has argued for very conservative policies while in elected office over the years, and many of his actions as Attorney General reflect that ideology. For instance, he issued a legal opinion prohibiting Virginia’s public colleges from including sexual orientation and gender expression as a protected class within its nondiscrimination policy. In addition, he issued a Civil Investigative Demand against the University of Virginia seeking research that former assistant professor Michael Mann had done regarding climate change, claiming that climate change did not exist and Mann’s research thus violated Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. Cuccinelli is also suffering some blowback from the Star Scientific case that has also engulfed Governor McDonnell.
The polls in the race aren’t going to tell us a ton right now, but McAuliffe has led in the three most recent. I’m going to call this one a toss-up for now, but I think McAuliffe might have a slight edge, and could attract some reverse coattails if the Republicans’ lieutenant governor nominee continues to attract controversy. If McAullife were to win, he would become the first Virginia governor since 1977 to be of the same party as the current US President.
Lieutenant Governor: Here we’ve also got two flawed candidates, but one much more so than the other. State Senator Ralph Northam (D) nearly left his party over proposed Medicaid budget cuts that would’ve affected several vital hospitals in his district. Northam now insists it never happened, and was a “Republican pipe dream.” He also angered some Democrats when he said he was open to power-sharing with the Republicans if the State Senate ends up tied for party control, as is the case now.
If you think that’s controversial, Republican nominee EW Jackson has many Republicans wishing he wasn’t on the ballot. His past statements are well-documented, such as comparing social programs to slavery, saying that Planned Parenthood has been worse for African-Americans than the KKK, and calling President Obama evil and a secret Muslim. These statements practically write Northam’s attack ads for him, and make his task much easier than McAuliffe’s. Even Ken Cuccinelli has tried to distance himself from Jackson. Once voters in the more liberal and more densely populated Northern Virginia area hear these statements, it will be game over for Jackson. This one rates a Likely Northam, only because there’s plenty of time for him to make a gaffe between now and Election Day.
Attorney General: State Senator Mark Obenshain is the Republican nominee, and is a fairly boilerplate Republican. The two most notable bills he supported have been one to would have required women who had miscarriages without medical attendance to report it to authorities within 24 hours. Obenshain now does not support the bill, saying that it was proposed in response to a case where a baby was discovered in the trash, and would have had far broader consequences than he realized at the time he proposed it. He also proposed a bill (that was signed into law) that prevents the state government from disclosing the identities of individuals who possess concealed weapons permits, information that had been previously accessible through the Freedom of Information Act. Which, funny enough, brought him into conflict with his own party.
The Democrats counter with Senator Mark Herring, who is trying to define himself as someone who does not play politics with the Attorney General’s office, as he has accused Cuccinelli of doing (witness his slogan: “Problem Solving, Not Politics”). Herring is putting economic development and transportation front and center in his campaign, and has sponsored many research and development incentive bills while in the Senate. This race is much less of a lightning rod for controversy than the above two, but I think it Leans Obenshain. Democrats have had a problem winning the AG’s office over the years, which I think is due somewhat to the “Mommy Problem,” where Republicans are more associated with the “power” or aggressiveness that it takes to do the AG’s job, which is to be the state’s leading prosecutor. I think this race will be greatly influenced by whoever wins the above two. While Virginians have had no problem splitting their tickets over the years, the national trend is against that, and Republicans swept all three offices in 2009. Time will tell, but these races will be fascinating to watch.
There are also two other high-profile races happening elsewhere in the country this year, but they both look like snoozers. Massachusetts is choosing a new Senator on Tuesday to replace John Kerry, who was recently tapped to be Secretary of State. Democrat Ed Markey looks like a lock over Republican Gabriel Gomez. In New Jersey, incumbent governor Chris Christie has played the part of a centrist and looks like an easy bet for reelection over Barbara Buono (D).