Why Ken Cuccinelli Might Be Virginia's Next Governor

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Attorney General of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli speaking at the 2012 Liberty Political Action Conference in Chantilly, Virginia.

Ideology matters much less to electoral outcomes than you’d think. Yes, there are obvious examples of where it matters—see: Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharon Angle, and Christine O’Donnell—but by and large, it plays a marginal role. The fundamentals of an election will do more to drive outcomes than a candidate’s ideology. Or, put another way, a double-dip recession and double-digit unemployment would have doomed Barack Obama regardless of who Republicans nominated. In that world, even Michele Bachmann could win the White House.

The point of this is to frame the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial election, which—barring a third-party contender—will pit Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against Terry McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. Cuccinelli has built his national brand as a hard right, Tea Party Republican. He filed suit against the Affordable Care Act, voiced support for highly restrictive abortion laws, and sued a climate scientist at the University of Virginia for allegedly falsifying data supporting the science behind climate change—the suit was dismissed.

His website, in fact, touts his far-right positions. On the issue of “life,” writes the Cuccinelli campaign, “Ken led efforts to de-fund planned parenthood of state tax dollars.” On immigration, he “Voted consistently against in-state tuition for illegal aliens.” And on the “Constitution and liberty,” he sued the Environmental Protection Agency in order to stop its “politically motivated agenda” based on “flawed science.”

The conventional wisdom, so far, is that this makes Cuccinelli a long short for the governor’s mansion, on account of Virginia’s changing demographics. Not only did Virginia voters support President Obama in 2008 and 2012, but they also elevated Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (two former governors) to the Senate.

Virginia’s off-year elections, however, attract a different crowd. The diverse electorate of 2008—28 percent nonwhite, 54 percent female, and mostly under the age of 45—stayed home in 2009. The one that came to the polls was whiter (78 percent compared to 70 percent), older (52 percent of all voters were over the age of 45), mostly Republican (37 percent), and largely conservative (40 percent). McDonnell’s double-digit win over Democrat Creigh Deeds was all but baked into the cake.

At the moment, according to the latest poll from Quinnipiac University, Cuccinelli and McAuliffe are tied with 38 percent support from Virginia voters. And there’s no doubt that Cuccinelli is far to the right of most Virginians. But most Virginians don’t vote in off-year elections, and absent a strong turnout operation, odds are best that Cuccinelli will capture the governorship and leave Democrats shut out of state government for another four years.

Put another way, the Virginia gubernatorial election will be a real test of the infrastructure built by Team Obama over the last four years. Can it work its magic on the state level, or is its ability to mobilize too tied to the president’s personality?