Sabato's Crystal Ball

Ratings Change: A Democratic Tide in Virginia

Larry J. Sabato and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 24th, 2013

Some history is being made in Virginia.

The statehouse battle was supposed to be close. But as we look at Virginia’s gubernatorial contest in the stretch, just about everything is moving in a Democratic direction. The final debate Thursday night changed little, in our view — especially because it wasn’t even broadcast statewide.

You might recall that the Crystal Ball was the first ratings agency to tilt the race to ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (D), and we did so at the end of August. Today we move the race from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

The list of McAuliffe advantages is as long as the list of problems for state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). On the fundraising front, McAuliffe has cemented his advantage: As of Sept. 30, McAuliffe had outraised Cuccinelli $26 million to $17 million.

The structure of the contest favors McAuliffe, too. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, though unknown, is benefitting from a general unhappiness with the quality of both major-party candidates, as well as the overwhelmingly negative tone of the campaign. The latest RealClearPolitics aggregate has Sarvis’ polling average right at 10%. Most polling shows Sarvis is, net, costing Cuccinelli about 2%-3%, because the Libertarian disproportionately takes votes from the GOP column. Even should Cuccinelli close hard and fast, Sarvis thus gives McAuliffe a cushion that makes it difficult for Cuccinelli to overtake him.

The federal government shutdown, in a state heavily dependent on military and civilian government work, has been a disaster for Cuccinelli. Voters have mainly blamed the GOP and the Tea Party, both Cuccinelli’s labels. The Republican Party’s image has been severely damaged in Virginia at precisely the wrong time for a Republican candidate for governor. It hasn’t necessarily shown up in the polls — which showed consistent leads for McAuliffe before the shutdown began — but the federal fracas also robbed Cuccinelli of an opportunity to change the race, and his remaining days are dwindling.

And then there’s Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). A year ago, with his popularity soaring, he was expected to play a major role in the 2013 contest, helping his party retain the statehouse. After his Gift-gate scandal, and facing possible federal indictment, McDonnell is useless to Cuccinelli. McDonnell is also still furious that Cuccinelli dethroned the governor’s preferred successor, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), while Cuccinelli deeply distrusts McDonnell. By the way, many senior McDonnell appointees are sitting on their hands, doing nothing to help Cuccinelli.

All of this is on top of Cuccinelli’s self-created problems on social issues (abortion, gay rights, climate change, immigration, etc.). His right-wing positions have become unacceptable in the new Purple, competitive Virginia, and they have pushed many moderate Republicans to publicly or privately back McAuliffe — or to stay neutral. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a reliably Republican newspaper (at least for endorsements), refused to endorse any gubernatorial candidate for the first time, and another conservative newspaper, the Charlottesville Daily Progressurged a write-in vote for Bolling.

You can also add in the serious damage done by the GOP’s nomination of the exceptionally controversial E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor — at a convention dominated by very conservative activists engineered by Cuccinelli to avoid a party primary.

This has the makings of a donnybrook for the Republicans, even in the face of McAuliffe’s governmental inexperience, lack of Virginia ties, controversial business deals and mediocre (at best) favorability ratings. After all, the Democrat’s ratings are not nearly as ugly as Cuccinelli’s, and elections are a choice, however distasteful.

Not only will McAuliffe’s election, should it happen, end the streak of governors elected from the party opposite the incumbent president (a staple since 1977), but it will mark the first time since the 1880s that a party has secured just a single four-year term before turning over the mansion keys to its opponents.

Nothing in modern times will signal Virginia’s political transformation more than the election of Terry McAuliffe, on the surface a most unlikely governor of the Old Dominion — at least as people once conceived of the state.

Nationally, the implications will be obvious. If Republicans continue to nominate hard-right candidates, they will probably continue to lose a state once thought to be part of their Electoral College base. For the Democrats, McAuliffe — one of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s closest friends (they’ve vacationed together) — guarantees Hillary a Southern base of operations for her impending 2016 presidential candidacy.

Looking down the ballot

With the election dynamics moving in the Democrats’ favor, the race for lieutenant governor is now Safe Democratic. Not only is Jackson controversial for his political views, but his campaign has been a mess. New revelations about his past financial problems and his campaign’s failures to properly disclose donations reflect a sloppiness or incompetence that was always going to make it hard for him to win. Now in the final days of the campaign, state Sen. Ralph Northam’s (D) campaign is going to hammer Jackson with television ads and mailers using the large volume of opposition research at its fingertips. Northam has raised significantly more than Jackson, so he will have the resources to do this effectively.

Meanwhile, the battle between the Marks for the state’s attorney general position is going to be the real race to watch on election night. Because of the likely coattails from McAuliffe and Northam, we’re moving this very close race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. Here’s why:

Unlike his ticket-mates, state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) has run a strong race, with a smart series of campaign ads (often featuring his articulate daughter) steering him toward the middle of the road. While Obenshain has a firmly conservative record, he has done an excellent job of emphasizing the parts of his bio that have the broadest appeal. With some exceptions, Obenshain has largely kept the GOP behind his candidacy. Whereas some moderate and business Republicans have openly endorsed McAuliffe in the gubernatorial race, many of those same individuals have backed Obenshain. In fact, national Republicans are moving money toward Obenshain in an effort to make him a firewall against a Democratic sweep on Election Day.

Obenshain’s opponent, state Sen. Mark Herring (D), has sought to drive home the claim that “Obenshain = Cuccinelli.” Considering Cuccinelli’s precarious position, that is an understandable strategy. Still, voters are far less tuned in to down-ballot contests, making it difficult to capture their attention with the details of a state senator’s legislative record. Herring’s fate is tied to the top of the ticket’s coattails, as so many down-ballot races often are.  Should McAuliffe win by just four or five points in the end, Obenshain may very well pull out the victory, especially because Libertarian Robert Sarvis’s vote is disproportionately Republican — which means Obenshain should pick up a few points, net, from Sarvis backers. But if McAuliffe wins by seven or eight or more, it will be very difficult for Obenshain to overcome that top-of-the-ticket margin — Sarvis notwithstanding. Herring will certainly be cheering for McAuliffe to run up the score.

There is a historical precedent for the situation in the attorney general’s contest. In 1981, as it became increasingly clear that Democrats were probably going to win the governorship and lieutenant governorship, many commentators still thought state Del. Wyatt Durrette (R) would carry the day in the attorney general’s contest. But then-Lt. Gov. Chuck Robb won the gubernatorial election by just over seven percentage points, a more than 100,000-vote margin. That sizable majority ended up helping then-Del. Gerald Baliles (D) achieve a narrow two-point edge in the attorney general’s race. It is quite possible that a similar scenario will play out on Nov. 5 this year.

Our call in the AG’s contest is a close one and tentative. We might revisit the rating before Election Day.

Further down the ballot, the effect of a solid McAuliffe victory on the House of Delegates is telling. While Republicans are certain to hold onto the House, as we discussed back in August, Democrats may be in a position to pick up more seats that we thought possible at that time. As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s political guru Jeff Schapiro, Democrats believe they may have a shot at 10 seats while Republicans concede there could be six to eight in play. Given that Republicans currently hold 68 seats (counting an independent who caucuses with the GOP) in the 100-member House of Delegates, a reasonable goal for Democrats would be to cut the Republican advantage down to 60-40. As long as there aren’t any shake-ups in the gubernatorial race in the final week and a half, a net gain of six to eight seats seems possible for Democrats.