VIENNA, Va. (WJLA) – Standing just outside the ballroom here at the Sheraton Premiere hotel Tuesday night, Democratic strategist Bill Burton confidently smiled and shrugged when asked whether he was getting antsy.
After all, Terry McAuliffe – leading by an average of 7 points in all the major polls – had trailed Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli for much of the evening.
“We’ll be OK,” said Burton, former deputy press secretary for President Obama, adding the bulk of Northern Virginia returns had yet to be processed. He was right, of course, and that pushed McAuliffe over the top.
The Democrat wound up beating Cuccinelli by a little under 3 points – a margin that many have called super surprising, given McAuliffe’s polling numbers.
So was it, in fact, that surprising?
Standing at the rear of the ballroom after the results were in, Paul Begala shook his head.
“Not really, maybe a little,” said noted the political consultant and commentator, who along with James Carville helped pave the way for Bill Clinton’s White House occupancy. “These things always tighten up, and besides, he took . . .some stands that usually hurt candidates in this state, like on guns.”
In fact, POLITICO chief Jim VandeHei pretty much offered the same assessment last week on “Morning Joe,” pointing out he believed McAuliffe’s winning margin ultimately would be between 2 and 3 percent.
Overall and perhaps more significantly, McAuliffe won despite bucking the southern holy grail of God, gays and, as Begala pointed out, guns. Virginia may not be Mississippi but it’s also not New Jersey.
His pro-life stands certainly were counter to those held by evangelical Christians, especially in Southwest Virginia. Ditto his support for gay rights and gun-control rights.
Partly because of his tremendous fundraising advantage, including a weeks-long ad blitz in voter-rich Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, McAuliffe was able to take bold stands on both gun-control issues and abortion-rights issues and LGBT issues without them bringing down his campaign.
Take, for example, the third and final debate, this one at Virginia Tech. Cuccinelli derided McAuliffe for his grade of F by the National Rifle Association. Without missing a beat, McAuliffe did something neither former Virginia Democratic governors Mark Warner nor Tim Kaine did during their campaigns.
He gave the NRA the back of his hand.
“I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA,” McAuliffe said. “I never want to see another Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech.”
According to Associated Press exit polling, the primary issues of concern were the economy (45 percent), health care (27 percent) and abortion-rights issues (only 20 percent).
Cuccinelli, meanwhile, did well among gun owners, among other groups.
McAuliffe took a gamble that that would be the case, and his campaign’s internal polling had to have indicated as much.
God, gays and guns? This time, not so much.
As longtime McAuliffe friend Carville famously said during Clinton’s successful ascension to the White House, “It’s the economy, stupid.”