Who Is Least Likely to Lose the Virginia Gubernatorial Race?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 16, 2013 · 9:15 AM EST

While most political attention these days is focused on the nation’s capital and President Barack Obama’s second term, across the river in Virginia, politicians from both parties are preparing for what seems to be the oddest gubernatorial race the state has seen in years.

Each party is poised to nominate a deeply flawed candidate for the state’s top post, with the winner replacing the popular current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell.

GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is widely regarded as the sort of politician who never met a Democrat he didn’t want to fight — an ideologue for whom burning bridges is the preferred option.

Allies of the attorney general prefer to emphasize the positive aspects of his agenda and style, arguing that he is principled, honest and straightforward. “There is never any doubt where he stands on an issue,” one ally said.

“He has a spine of steel rooted in principle, but he is engaging, friendly and has a good sense of humor,” said another admirer of the attorney general, adding, “And he is wicked smart.”

Supporters argue that the picture painted of the attorney general by the media is as unfair as it is unflattering. They point to his years trying to educate people about and mobilize action against sexual assault, going all the way back to his days as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, and they promise that by the time November rolls around, voters will have a better idea of who Cuccinelli really is.

But while criticism of Cuccinelli coming from liberals and Democrats is predictable and therefore less convincing, it is criticism of him from conservatives and Republicans that raises the most questions about the attorney general’s appeal and viability in a general election.

“Cuccinelli’s biggest problem isn’t his ideology,” said one Republican who generally agrees with him on most issues. “It’s his attitudes toward voters and his fellow Republicans that it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ When he’s attacked, he’ll almost always double down. He sees backing off as compromising on principle.”

Republicans note that Cuccinelli and McDonnell don’t disagree on many issues but have much different campaign styles.

The governor ran and has governed as a smiling, likable, consensus-building conservative. During his 2009 campaign, he stayed focused on economic issues, steering away from social issues even when critics tried to make the election about his master’s thesis for Regent University two decades earlier.

While allies of Cuccinelli say the engineer-turned-attorney can be just as disciplined as McDonnell, other Republicans are skeptical. They believe that too often he sounds confrontational and inflexible, and they doubt that he will be able to ignore criticism.

Republicans also worry whether Cuccinelli will be able to raise the money he will need to win in November. They are nervous that the party’s reliable contributors from the Richmond and Northern Virginia business communities, who would have preferred the party nominate Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, will be less than entirely comfortable with the attorney general.

Bolling dropped his bid for the GOP nomination after Cuccinelli’s allies in the state party replaced a primary with a convention, all but eliminating any chance that Bolling could win. While most insiders are skeptical that the lieutenant governor will mount an independent bid, his threat to do so reflects his anger at how things developed and shows Cuccinelli’s willingness to use a jackhammer when a fly swatter will do.

In an effort to pull defeat from the jaws of victory, Democrats will nominate former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have a few things in common. They both are politically ambitious. Both are Catholic, and each has a large family (Cuccinelli has seven children, McAuliffe five). Each has a law degree (Cuccinelli from George Mason, McAuliffe from Georgetown), and neither man is a native Virginian — McAuliffe was born in New York, while Cuccinelli was born in New Jersey. But McAuliffe is the smooth, glad-handing, back-slapping, story-telling political insider that Cuccinelli is not.

Though McAuliffe is engaging and entertaining, some will regard him as a caricature of a politician: an overly slick, wealthy insider who wants to be elected to some office — any office — merely to validate his importance, extend his influence and satisfy his own ego.

The former DNC chairman served as co-chairman of President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign and chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, and he is widely regarded as more comfortable mining the offices of K Street and the restaurants of the nation’s capital for campaign contributions than relating to average folks in Culpeper County or Southwest Virginia.

McAuliffe has also done something that Cuccinelli never has: lost an election. The Democratic hopeful ran a surprisingly weak second in the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary, even though numerous polls showed him as the clear front-runner just three weeks out.

One veteran political strategist argued that McAuliffe’s numbers sank the more he appeared on television, speculating that Virginia voters simply liked him less the more they saw him.

Supporters of Cuccinelli, who is running even with McAuliffe in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, argue that he will have plenty of resources, in part, because both the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee will make sure of that. And they note that going back to 1977, Virginia voters have elected the governor from the party not holding the White House, a trend that favors the Republican nominee this time.

Both assertions are true. But they may be irrelevant. Virginia, you see, is changing.