Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, was immediately sucking for air as last night's debate in Northern Virginia began. It took his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe—former Democratic National Committee chair and Clinton World stalwart—just a few minutes and a few lines about how he'll bring business to the state before he was able to smoothly segue into this attack:
My opponent has spent most of his career on a social ideological agenda. He has pushed personhood legislation which would outlaw most forms of contraception, would make the pill illegal in Virginia. He bullied the Board of Health that would shut down the woman's health centers. Women are 50 percent of the workforce of the United States of America.
Cuccinelli, Virginia's current attorney general, is not the slickest debater and had trouble aggressively beating away such a tone for much of the night. "Well, in this race—of course, we've got our ads on television," is how he prefaces his response to McAuliffe's charge. He mentions his best TV ad of the campaign, about Thomas Haynesworth, the innocent man whom his attorney general's office helped get released from prison, for one.
But his ads are nothing compared to McAuliffe's, which are running constantly due to the larger war chest his campaign has at its disposal. They're clean hits, and they're working, especially among women in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Take his recent ad "Offended," indicative of the type, which shows an OB-GYN delivering this message: "My job is to protect the health of women. So I'm particularly offended by Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli wants to make all abortion illegal. Even in cases of rape and incest. Even to protect a woman's health. I want a governor who's focused on schools and creating jobs, not someone who wants to do my job." And then, with a touch more anger: "Who's Ken Cuccinelli to interfere in the lives of women across Virginia?" Yeah … yeah! Who is this jerk anyway, messing with women, thinks he's something special…
And so recent polls have been showing McAuliffe with a decent, but not insurmountable, lead in the race. The latest Washington Post poll had McAuliffe beating Cuccinelli 47 to 39 percent among likely voters, with libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis holding a solid 10 percent. (In a one-to-one poll of McAuliffe vs. Cuccinelli, the lead is only 49 to 44 percent, indicating that Sarvis is mainly serving as a Cuccinelli spoiler here.) And where is McAuliffe's lead coming from? Those very women with whom Cuccinelli is getting all interferin'-like: "The shift in the race has come almost exclusively from female voters, who prefer McAuliffe by a 24-point margin over Cuccinelli. The candidates were effectively tied among women in a Washington Post poll in May."
Things are going so well for McAuliffe at the moment that you can almost forget that no one really loves him as a politician. A friend told me yesterday that her parents in Northern Virginia would be "hatevoting" for McAuliffe. That sounds about right. The Post poll showed that McAuliffe is seen favorably by only 48 percent of voters. The guy, after all, is a professional fundraiser and operative who doesn't seem to believe in anything; you get the sense with him—even more than with most politicians—that you're getting spun a real tale whenever he speaks. Even in his debate performance last night, he just sort of repeated buzzwords with no meaning: "jobs," "bipartisan," "work together," "tech jobs," all with a smile, at least. But … he's running against Ken Cuccinelli, is the thing, who's only seen favorably by 40 percent of voters, based largely on his strictly conservative social views.
Cuccinelli attempted to soften his image last night. "Whether it was back when I was an engineering student at UVA and a friend of mine was sexually assaulted, my response was to start a new organization that's still functioning there to protect young women at UVA," he said. "And it was the first of its kind in the country. We run multiple domestic violence programs in the Attorney General's Office. And we started from scratch fighting human trafficking." But with his image so carefully baked at this point, these couple of anecdotes won't do much to save him.
And so this race has, at least to this point, gone more or less exactly how people predicted it would: a pure lesser-of-two-evils race, where a highly beatable candidate in McAuliffe has managed to nevertheless pull ahead because his opponent is a nationally-recognized lightning rod on social issues. Boring, but that's fine.