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Virginia Governor|By Charlie Cook, September 9, 2013

In some odd years, gubernatorial races and special congressional elections offer a foreshadowing, or at least a hint, of what might happen in the next year’s national elections. In other odd years, no pattern emerges. We never know which until after the national elections occur, making the off-year elections a less-than-helpful indicator.

This year, the outcome of New Jersey’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 5 is unlikely to tell us anything useful about the 2014 midterms. Republican Chris Christie looks almost certain to roll up a big reelection victory. Much will be read into the results, given the state’s heavy Democratic tilt. Christie’s victory, though, won’t foretell the future. It will simply reflect that he is exceedingly formidable and has cracked the code of how a Republican wins in a Democratic state, much the way former New Jersey GOP Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman did before him.

The better test will be the gubernatorial race in Virginia between Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and business executive Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Historically, Virginia has been a red, conservative state; after all, Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. In recent years, though, Virginia has become more of a Mid-Atlantic state, in part because of an influx of non-Southerners, especially to the heavily populated Northern Virginia and Tidewater regions. That is why President Obama carried the Old Dominion twice, albeit narrowly. Virginia is now a purple, swing state.

Neither major-party nominee has any special claim on its growing numbers of moderate, independent, and swing voters. That dynamic, plus the fact that voter turnout plummets in non-presidential elections, is exactly why the race is such a fair fight.

Cuccinelli entered the contest with a well-earned reputation as a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners conservative, more reflective of the Old Dixie Virginia than the new Mid-Atlantic state. He has a passionate following among many conservatives, although quite a few members of the GOP establishment are uncomfortable with his style and have been skeptical about his ability to win a general election.

On the other side, many doctrinaire liberals don’t trust McAuliffe. Some of the suspicion goes back to bad blood from the 2008 presidential race when he was foursquare in the camp of close friends Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, while many of his critics were on Barack Obama’s team. McAuliffe represented the old-style establishment, while Obama and liberals were more associated with the Left’s new politics. Plus, many liberals tend to be skeptical of businesspeople generally, and McAuliffe’s wheeler-dealer reputation puts off many such voters. All of this means the nominee is reasonably strong among Democrats generally but less so with the more ideological wing of the party—roughly the reverse of Cuccinelli’s situation on the GOP side.

From January through the end of May, 13 public polls were released: McAuliffe held narrow leads in seven and Cuccinelli in five; one poll had them tied. Five of the polls reflected inconsequential leads of just 1 or 2 percentage points. The widest margin for either candidate in this baker’s dozen was a Cuccinelli lead of 8 points. It’s fair to say that after Memorial Day, the race looked pretty much like a jump ball.

In many ways, McAuliffe had about as bad a summer as a candidate can have. A series of negative stories about his business affairs, particularly involving GreenTech Automotive and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigation of the company, put him on the defensive and off-message for weeks. Meanwhile, Cuccinelli had to distance himself from Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who, along with his wife, is under federal investigation for taking gifts from a large donor. The attorney general has been brushed by the scandal, but he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

From the tone of the summer’s news coverage, one might guess that Cuccinelli would hold a small lead in the polls. Although the Republican was the subject of quite a few unflattering stories, the preponderance of the bad press seemed aimed at McAuliffe. The public polling, however, shows something different. McAuliffe has a lead in six of seven recent public surveys, with margins ranging from 3 to 10 points.

It’s hard to figure what’s going on, because McAuliffe certainly didn’t “win the summer.” Perhaps his narrow advantage comes from a combination of factors. It is possible that McDonnell’s problems are rubbing off on Cuccinelli and fueling a time-for-a-change sentiment. Another reason could be that Cuccinelli’s strong ideology is becoming more problematic among voters, even as the Republican Party’s national negatives weigh him down. A third factor could be E.W. Jackson, the GOP’s very conservative and often-controversial nominee for lieutenant governor. Jackson proved to be a distraction to Cuccinelli’s efforts over the summer to ease suburbanites’ discomfort with him. The final factor could be money. McAuliffe and his allies have outspent Cuccinelli and his backers by a fairly significant amount.

Still, this race seems far from over. Most Virginia voters aren’t yet focused on the contest, which isn’t unusual at this point in the cycle. Today, it’s probably safer to call it something close to a 50-50 race. Based on summer polling, you could perhaps put a tiny finger on the scale for McAuliffe, but not enough to warrant laying a confident bet.

Whichever party is victorious in November is certain to crow that the result is of great national import. Partisans will argue that Virginia is a swing state that is representative of the country. But this contest has enough weird angles—not the least of which is a governor in prosecutors’ cross hairs—that such claims might well be an overreach.