Sabato's Crystal Ball

Virginia Governor: A Favorite Emerges

McAuliffe leads race going into Labor Day

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics August 30th, 2013

As the calendar turns to September, the nation’s marquee race in 2013 is coming into focus: Terry McAuliffe (D) now has an edge over Ken Cuccinelli (R) in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and we’re changing our rating in the contest from toss-up to LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

The decision is based on several factors, all of which seem to suggest that the former Democratic National Committee chairman is leading the state attorney general.

McAuliffe has managed to make the prospect of a Governor Cuccinelli seem scary, while Cuccinelli has “only” succeeded in making McAuliffe look like a run-of-the-mill, self-interested wealthy political hack. In this wholly negative race, that sad distinction matters.

What’s kept Cuccinelli from painting McAuliffe in even less favorable colors? The Bob McDonnell scandal (to which Cuccinelli is connected by the GOP party label and gifts from the same supplicant), his substantially lesser fundraising, E.W. Jackson’s nomination for lieutenant governor, and the defection of a sizable number of moderate Republicans led by the lieutenant governor he left as road kill, Bill Bolling.

If McAuliffe wins, he will be the first Virginia governor elected from the sitting president’s party since Mills Godwin (R) was elected in 1973, when Richard Nixon was in the White House. Also remarkably, should McAuliffe pull this off, it will be the first time since the 1880s that either party has been given just a single consecutive term in the Governor’s Mansion.

Recent polling from Quinnipiac shows the McAuliffe up 48%-42% over Cuccinelli, and an internal poll from the Democratic Party of Virginia showed a similar margin (48%-44%). That is backed up by other polling. The respected HuffPost Pollster average shows McAuliffe up by eight points (45.1% to 37.1%). That average also shows Robert Sarvis, a Libertarian candidate, at 9.5%. Despite the damaged nature of both major-party nominees, it would be surprising if Sarvis maintained that level of support — third-party candidates often poll much better than they actually perform on Election Day. Aside from Henry Howell’s independent run in 1973 (49.3%), no independent or third-party gubernatorial candidate has done better than Russ Potts’ 2.2% in 2005 in the modern era of Virginia politics (dating back to the start of true two-party competition in 1969).

Sarvis’s ceiling is probably the 11.4% that Republican-turned-independent Marshall Coleman won in the nasty 1994 Senate race between Sen. Chuck Robb (D) and Iran-Contra figure Oliver North (R). That race, like this gubernatorial contest, featured two flawed major-party contenders. However, Coleman was a known entity in Virginia politics; he had won a statewide race for attorney general in 1977 before losing the gubernatorial race to Robb in 1981, and he had very narrowly lost another run for governor in 1989 to Doug Wilder (D). Sarvis is almost a complete unknown — he ran as a Republican in a Virginia state Senate race in 2011, losing badly.

Another 1994 comparison: By nominating a candidate who was too controversial and too conservative to beat Robb, who was damaged by scandal, Republican activists snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. If he does not turn his fortunes around, the same will be said of Cuccinelli, a favorite of the right wing of his party who was nominated at a low-attendance convention.

We’ve been hearing rumblings that some members of the state’s corporate community think they see the writing on the wall in this contest, and while a fair number of moderate Republicans have endorsed McAuliffe, Cuccinelli has little if any prominent crossover support. The Quinnipiac poll showed Cuccinelli attracting only 1% of Democrats, but McAuliffe winning 6% of Republicans. That’s not an imposing crossover vote, but it could be large enough to matter if it materializes on Election Day.

Tellingly, the Cuccinelli campaign has not released any internal polling, and from what we can discern from the campaigns, there seems to be a general consensus that McAuliffe is leading, although perhaps not by as much as the Pollster average would indicate.

The McDonnell factor

The Crystal Ball changes ratings regularly to reflect new realities. What could change our rating in the Virginia gubernatorial race?

With candidates this flawed, it wouldn’t be an enormous surprise to wake up to more serious revelations on any given day, so that’s one option. Debate gaffes are another, though there are only two more debates scheduled, one on Sept. 25 in Fairfax and a later clash that will take place at Virginia Tech.

Looming over everything is the possibility of an indictment of Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). By now, the details of this seedy, greedy gifts scandal are well known. McDonnell and his wife benefited from their relationship with Star Scientific CEO Jonnie R. Williams Sr. to the tune of over $100,000 in gifts, such as expensive shopping sprees for First Lady Maureen McDonnell and $70,000 for a corporation owned by the governor and his sister — as well as the infamous $6,500 engraved Rolex watch for the 71st governor. Now federal officials are weighing whether or not to take action.

What happens if McDonnell is indicted? There will be a strong push to have him resign, and some Republican officeholders have quietly made it known they will support such a move. If McDonnell gives into the pressure, then Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) will become the interim governor. One might think that a new, clean Republican governor would help Cuccinelli’s prospects. Yet Bolling despises Cuccinelli and deeply resents being pushed aside for the Republican nomination by the attorney general.

If he becomes governor, Bolling will have three options: He can endorse McAuliffe outright (there have been friendly words and gestures between the two), he can remain neutral (which also helps McAuliffe), or he can give his open or covert assent to a gubernatorial write-in effort. Chuckle all you like, but Bolling is much easier to spell than Murkowski, and both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have lousy favorability ratings. Any such effort would have to be well funded, and Bolling would have to make clear he would serve if elected. Disproportionately, a Bolling write-in campaign would likely help Cuccinelli by draining many anti-Cuccinelli votes from McAuliffe; this is a key reason why Bolling might not do it.

McDonnell may dig in his heels and not resign if indicted, assuming he can survive the “unfit for office” provisions of Article V, Section 16 of the Virginia Constitution. (The governor can be temporarily removed from his post by other top elected officials.) Despite the inevitable, nearly unanimous editorial calls for his resignation and a daily drumbeat of denunciations from politicians of both parties, McDonnell might get away with it, since he has only about four months left on his term. That will all but guarantee McAuliffe’s election, since the daily headlines will be about the unprecedented spectacle of a Virginia governor preparing to be put on trial.

The other possibility is that McDonnell won’t be indicted, which is the scenario that many legal experts appear to believe is the most likely. As improper, even disgraceful, as his and the first lady’s actions have been, the outrage in Virginia is what’s legal. The state is the wild, wild West on gifts — almost anything goes, under laws written by public officials for the benefit of public officials. And the federal Hobbs Act may be a stretch in seeking an indictment of the McDonnells.

Believe it or not, non-indictment is the option preferred by many Democrats. They get to keep McDonnell to kick around through November, linking his gifts to Cuccinelli’s much smaller haul from the same source. They avoid the possibility of a Gov. Bolling write-in effort. And McDonnell — once a popular governor who might have been able to drag Cuccinelli across the finish line — is still neutralized because of the lingering taint. McDonnell will never be able to proclaim, “I’m innocent.” The facts are already obvious to all. His parting slogan will be, “I wasn’t indicted.”

There may well be twists and turns we are not calculating here, so this is a situation that bears watching on a daily basis. Its effects on the current contest for McDonnell’s successor — and on our rating — could be major.

A look into the history hutch

One other thing to consider: Big changes down the stretch of campaigns have been common in Virginia gubernatorial battles.

There have been 11 modern gubernatorial races in Virginia (again, going back to 1969). Many of them have seen post-Labor Day drama.

– In 1973, independent Henry Howell (running as the de facto Democratic nominee) had a significant lead over former Gov. Mills Godwin (R) at Labor Day. Godwin came back to win. Four years earlier, Bill Battle (D) appeared to have a Labor Day lead over Linwood Holton (R); with the help of then-popular, new President Richard Nixon, who stumped for him, Holton surged to victory, becoming the first Republican governor of Virginia in modern times.

– In his quest to become the first elected black governor in U.S. history, Doug Wilder (D) had a seemingly insurmountable lead over Marshall Coleman (R) in 1989. But Coleman stormed back (aided by racial leakage in the privacy of the voting booth), and Wilder ended up winning by less than a percentage point.

– The 2005 contest between now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D) and then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore (R) was very close for most of the campaign, although Kaine ended up winning easily by about six points; so was the 1981 contest between Robb and Coleman, which Robb eventually won by seven points.

A Democratic sweep?

Virginia has a short ballot — an innovation of the 1920s — and so only governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are popularly elected. In the contest for lieutenant governor, Democrats have a highly probable victory. State Sen. Ralph Northam (D) should win handily over E.W. Jackson (R), an African-American minister who has a long trail of controversial statements but has never held public office. Jackson won in an upset at the convention of hardcore GOP activists held in May, the one Ken Cuccinelli and his allies insisted upon to guarantee his nomination over Bolling; last year Jackson barely registered in a GOP primary for U.S. Senate, garnering less than 5% of the vote.

A Northam victory would probably give Democrats the tiebreaking vote in the Virginia Senate, which is evenly split 20-20 at the moment (Bolling, as the Republican lieutenant governor, gives his party control now). However, if Republicans could recapture Northam’s seat in a special election, they could win back control of the Senate even with Northam as lieutenant governor. The Senate seat of one of the attorney general hopefuls will also be contested in a special election, and that could affect the balance of power, too. Anyway, the lieutenant governor’s contest is LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

The contest for attorney general is low visibility and may be the closest of the three races. State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) is a former Senate desk mate of Cuccinelli, but he has been trying to steer his campaign in a more moderate direction, at least rhetorically. His opponent, state Sen. Mark Herring (D), insists that Obenshain’s actual legislative voting record is nearly identical to Cuccinelli’s. Obenshain is the most likely winner on the GOP slate, and Republicans normally have the advantage for this office, having won every election for it since 1993. But it is easy to see how Herring could win in a ticket election where mainly partisans show up at the polls and stay in one party’s column. Herring is also fortunate to be placed on the ballot after lieutenant governor, where the Democratic win could be sizable. For now, we’ll call it a TOSS-UP.

Conclusion

Dear readers, we want to remind you of our slogan at the Crystal Ball: “He who lives by the crystal ball ends up eating ground glass.” We don’t know the future, and you don’t either. (Apologies to Sister Rose, the tarot card reader up the road.) All we can do is judge the possible or likely outcomes from as many objective data points as we can collect. As noted above, one of us is old enough to remember a couple of Virginia governor’s races where the Labor Day poll leader actually lost in November, and several more where the expected margin dramatically expanded or shrank in the final couple of months.

Campaigns are organic, and they change day to day as a consequence of real events. When we rate races at the Crystal Ball, we write on sand castles, not stone mountains. We’ll watch along with you to see whether our Virginia ratings solidify on the shore or are washed away by an unseen wave. As always, it will be fun (well, partly), and we’re glad you are along for the ride.