Here’s the thing about Virginia gubernatorial contests: More so than even midterm elections, they have abysmally low turnout. From 2008 to 2009, for example, more than 46 percent of voters left the electorate, and overwhelmingly, those voters were African Americans, Latinos, and young people.
This gives Republicans a built-in advantage, which is why—in most polls of this year’s race—Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has the lead over his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The last several surveys of the race, however, have shown McAuliffe with a small but meaningful lead. In the latest from Quinnipiac University, for example, McAuliffe leads 43 percent to Cuccinelli’s 38 percent, an improvement over the last poll, where he trailed by two points, 40 percent to 38 percent.
What’s more, a new Washington Post poll shows a Virginia that has moved closer to the center of American politics, which should advantage McAuliffe, who—if he has an ideology at all—is the gauzy, formless centrism that defines a certain class of professional Democrat. According to the Post, more Virginians support same-sex marriage (56 percent to 33 percent), universal background checks (86 percent to 10 percent), and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants (54 percent to 39 percent) than ever before.
The problem for McAuliffe is that while this should help him against Cuccinelli, it won’t—unless he is able to generate high turnout among Democrats. As long as the electorate leans Republican, Cuccinelli doesn’t have to moderate his views. Yes, he’ll lose independents and conservative Democrats, but the Virginians most likely to vote—Republicans—are also the ones most likely to oppose marriage equality.
Indeed, if the Quinnipiac poll shows anything, it’s that McAuliffe is still struggling to consolidate Democratic voters in the commonwealth. He wins only 70 percent of black voters and a plurality of women, 47 percent. Those numbers must be much higher if he is to eke out a victory against Cuccinelli, who by virtue of the shape of the electorate, is fighting on friendlier territory.
On Twitter, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber raised a question about the Virginia gubernatorial race that’s worth answering. Would it be better for Virginia Democrats, in the long-run, if Terry McAuliffe lost the race to Ken Cuccinelli? “He could discredit Dems in VA for a generation, depending on the amount of sleaze he brings to the office, and gins up while there.”
Like Scheiber, I worry about the “sleaze” McAuliffe could bring if he’s elected governor. But in the short-run, a McAuliffe win keeps Virginia away from Cuccinelli-style conservatism, and its attacks on social services and reproductive rights. And in the long-run, the Virginia Democratic Party has more to gain than lose with a McAuliffe victory.
Remember, Democrats in the commonwealth have an extremely weak bench—it’s the whole reason McAuliffe was able to win the nomination, uncontested. But if they can take the governor’s mansion—and elect Democrats to other statewide positions, like lieutenant governor and attorney general—then they can build a foundation for future elections. Winning, in other words, is a necessary precondition for winning.