Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli came closer to defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the race for Virginia governor than any of the polls predicted.
Cuccinelli lost to McAuliffe by about 3 percentage points despite a huge funding gap, a split in the state GOP, the Star Scientific scandal, the partial government shutdown and a Libertarian who cleaved off 6 percent of the vote.
“For a static campaign, this was a dramatic finish,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst with the University of Virginia.
Some experts believe Cuccinelli’s late charge resulted from his shift toward making the election a referendum on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The candidate agreed.
“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race went down to the wire because of Obamacare,” Cuccinelli said in his concession speech at the Richmond Marriott. “That message will go out across America tonight,” he said.
In the campaign’s final days, Cuccinelli sprinted to rallies around the state, highlighting the troubled launch of the federal health care website and reports about millions of Americans who received cancellation notices because their health policies do not comply with the new law’s standards.
“The outcome should embolden Republicans who believe the Obamacare issue resonates with voters right now,” said Mark J. Rozell, a political analyst at George Mason University.
“Given all of the variables aligned against Ken Cuccinelli, he still pulled it close by nationalizing the campaign,” Rozell said. If problems with the health care law persist, “this issue potentially has legs going into 2014.”
Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst, formerly at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the result also could embolden Republicans in the House of Delegates, making it harder for McAuliffe to get Medicaid expansion.
“It’s going to be very difficult to separate Medicaid expansion” from the Affordable Care Act, he said.
Sabato, in a emailed analysis, points to a few possible factors for the close finish, including Cuccinelli’s closing message emphasizing the “disastrous roll-out of Obamacare.”
But, he added, a year ago, Cuccinelli appeared to have the inside track to a win. His rival was a professional fundraiser who was defeated in his party’s gubernatorial primary in 2009 and had never held public office.
“So it’s actually remarkable that Terry McAuliffe won by any margin.”
But Cuccinelli also faced steady political headwinds — some out of his control, others of his own design.
As the Republican’s financial support dried up late in the contest, McAuliffe dominated the ad war, particularly in the costly Washington-area television market.
On Wednesday the Washington-based Tea Party Patriots accused the national Republican establishment of “abandoning a winnable race in a key swing state by withholding support for Ken Cuccinelli.”
The Republican National Committee said it spent $3 million to back Cuccinelli and his running mates. It spent $9 million to boost Republican Bob McDonnell in 2009.
Early in the campaign, grass-roots and tea party activists loyal to the attorney general engineered a takeover of the state Republican Party’s executive committee and changed the nominating process for its statewide slate from a primary to a convention.
The move undercut the support of Cuccinelli’s GOP rival, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who was favored by the more well-funded, traditional Republican establishment.
Bolling’s bitter departure from the race, and his refusal to endorse Cuccinelli’s candidacy, highlighted the rift in the ranks.
“There are clear lessons in these losses for the Republican Party,” Bolling said in a statement. “Going forward, we need to have an open and honest conversation about the future of our party and determine what we must do to reconnect with a more diverse voter base whose support is critical to political success in Virginia.”
Former Republican state Sen. John Chichester of Stafford said the party’s decision to switch from a primary to a convention “was almost a death knell from the beginning.”
Chichester, who is serving on McAuliffe’s transition team, also said Republicans’ chances were hurt by their stances on some social issues.
“The Republican Party wasn’t put here to be the traffic cop of our personal lives, and that needs to be changed,” he said.
Disclosure in March of state and federal investigations into McDonnell’s receipt of more than $160,000 in gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr. also ensnared Cuccinelli, who had also received $18,000 in gifts from Williams and his company.
Cuccinelli later revealed he failed to disclose his stock holdings in Star as well as $5,000 of the gifts, including a catered Thanksgiving dinner and stay at Williams’ vacation home. A Richmond prosecutor cleared Cuccinelli of any violation of state disclosure laws, but the investigation of a sitting Republican governor neutralized McDonnell’s ability to assist the ticket in fundraising and support.
“On top of his difficulties on social issues, there was the scandal that deprived the GOP of its premier asset, Gov. Bob McDonnell,” said Sabato.
The Sarvis factor
The drumbeat of television attack ads between the major party candidates provided an opening for Libertarian Robert Sarvis to tap into the disaffection of voters who found Cuccinelli too extreme and thought McAuliffe an untrustworthy Washington insider.
Sarvis tallied more than 145,000 votes. Cuccinelli lost to McAuliffe by fewer than 55,000.
Should I stay or should I go?
Cuccinelli’s decision not to leave his job as attorney general to campaign for governor — a decision made by the six previous attorneys general who ran for the Executive Mansion — drew some initial criticism from those who wondered whether he could perform both jobs effectively.
But arguably the greatest drag on Cuccinelli was his continuing connection to the office, which found itself at the center of litigation and investigations that created at least the appearance of conflicts.
The Star case — and the embezzlement probe of the former Executive Mansion chef that led to disclosures about Williams and the governor — created a conflict, given Cuccinelli’s relationship with both as the state’s lawyer.
A languishing, unrelated tax lawsuit filed by Star in Mecklenburg County also drew attention to Cuccinelli’s office, which was assigned to defend the commonwealth, and led to a conflict that resulted in the appointment of outside counsel.
An ongoing legal dispute over methane gas royalties claimed by Southwest Virginia landowners also provided an opportunity for opponents. It was revealed that a senior staffer in Cuccinelli’s office had provided legal assistance to lawyers for two companies that were fighting the landowners over the royalties — and one of the companies had donated more than $110,000 to Cuccinelli’s campaign.
The shutdown of the federal government had a disproportionate effect on Virginia, whose economic fortunes are linked to government-related industries.
The shutdown effort, led by tea party Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as a protest to the health care law, put Cuccinelli in the awkward position of having to advocate for an end to the crisis while not alienating its architects, many of whom represent conservative constituencies that are loyal to his politics.
Polls earlier in the race showed Virginians blamed the GOP for the shutdown more than the Democrats, which hurt Cuccinelli — at least until the health care rollout began to backfire.
We just disagree
The election may also have turned on a simple premise: A majority of Virginians — in particular women — did not agree with Cuccinelli’s views.
Exit polling by CNN showed that 50 percent of voters found Cuccinelli’s positions to be too conservative, while only 41 percent considered McAuliffe too liberal.
The exit poll indicated McAuliffe winning the vote of 51 percent of women, compared with 42 percent for Cuccinelli — a smaller margin than previous polls suggested for the Democrat but still significant.
“Ultimately, Cuccinelli was just too socially conservative for a middle-of-the-road state that is trending away from its deep Republican roots,” Sabato said.
Politics Editor Andrew Cain contributed to this report.