So there was a rousing red political convention over the weekend in Richmond during which Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, dutifully reiterated his opposition to abortion, Obamacare and the science of climate change. Although he attempted to concentrate on job creation and the like, Cuccinelli nonetheless became the official standard bearer for all things tea-party in a state that by no means is wedded to such ideology.
But didn’t we just see this movie a few months ago?
For the second consecutive presidential election cycle, Barack Obama won the increasingly blue Virginia by espousing progressive views deemed more acceptable to the electorate than the Republican option – first John McCain and then Mitt Romney.
The latter made no secret of his disdain for such things as Planned Parenthood, and, well, he lost the state.
Now along comes Cuccinelli, more or less running on the same platform with which he governed the past four years as the state’s controversial attorney general.
But this, as Virginia Tech political science professor Chuck Walcott points out, takes things to a different level as the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, happily and hungrily watches the emerging narrative.
“Compared to Cuccinelli,” Walcott says, “Mitt Romney is a feminist.”
‘WAR ON WOMEN’
The so-called “war on women” was a front-and-center theme for Democrats in the presidential election, and as a swing state, Virginia played a pivotal role.
It begins with Cuccinelli, who:
• Was successful in pushing through new regulations that mandate hospital-level building codes for abortion clinics, thereby threatening the existence of some unable to upgrade their facilities.
• Compared abortion to slavery in a speech last summer to Christian conservatives, saying, “Start right at the beginning – slavery. Today, abortion. History has shown us what the right position was, and those were issues that were attacked by people of faith aggressively to change the course of this country.”
• Wrote in his recently released book that he steadfastly opposes all forms of abortion.
This is a race supposedly rife with national implications, given that it’s a rare off-year affair with national names. But many Virginians have been slow to the party. Polls the past month or so have revealed relatively scant knowledge of either candidate. But now the official campaigning has begun, and McAuliffe – surprise, surprise – has been hammering his opponent about caring more about such social issues as abortion at the expense of ideas about job creation.
Cue the “war on women” narrative. But will it work?
Larry Sabato has yet to be persuaded that it will. He’s the noted political pundit who has covered Virginia politics for decades and is the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“If McAuliffe is to beat Cuccinelli, he has to energize the Democratic base to turn out in large numbers, something that proved a big problem when Bob McDonnell was elected in 2009,” Sabato says. “Social issues are his key—abortion, gay rights, climate change, etc.—because Cuccinelli has taken very conservative positions on these topics in a state that is exceptionally moderate. But can McAuliffe keep the focus on those topics?
“Governors are mainly associated with the nuts and bolts of governing—jobs, education, transportation, and the like. McAuliffe leads among women, Cuccinelli among men—the usual gender split in this era when Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus.”
U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine both are former governors of Virginia and both beat opponents with decidedly socially conservative views.
And that, believes University of Mary Washington professor Stephen J. Farnsworth, is no small thing to consider.
“I think it’s important to look at the last three Republican candidates for governor,” he says. “The first two of the three, Mark Earley and Jerry Kilgore, both offered up a pretty socially conservative campaign, focusing a lot on abortion.”
They both lost and then along came the unlikely moderate, Bob McDonnell. Yes, he graduated from Pat Roberston’s Regent University and yes, he uttered a few tone-deaf remarks about women when he was much younger man.
But he moved quickly to distance himself from those stands once the campaign began, and unlike Romney, he succeeded.
“He really focused on economic issues, you know, the “Bob’s for Jobs” campaign,” Farnsworth says. “The more Christian-conservative oriented message of the two previous candidates was a losing approach.
“I think that one of the liabilities that Ken Cuccinelli brings to this race is that he is very, very powerfully identified with a socially and conservative movement, and that does not help him in the swing precincts of suburbs across the state.”
SO HERE WE ARE
Exactly where we are, however, is unclear.
Obama overwhelming won the women’s vote in Virginia the past two presidential elections.
But note those last two words: presidential elections.
For all of Virginia’s preening about being the birthplace of numerous presidents and its newfound status as a purple swing state with the nation’s political wonks keenly watching the approaching race for governor, voter turnout in an off-year election never approaches that of a presidential election.
It just doesn’t. Farnsworth believes Planned Parenthood will make a concerted financial push in favor of McAuliffe, and that it will be fruitful to an extent, but Cuccinelli aides proudly insist their man never will waver from his core values.
When it comes down to it, if the abortion issue is important to enough people, it could sway the election’s results. If it’s not that important to enough people, it may be a non-starter. So says Virginia Tech’s Walcott.
“The smaller size of the electorate makes the race vulnerable to organized, motivated minorities,” he says. “Women who fear the ‘war’ could be such a factor. So could gun owners, coal miners, and/or conservative Christians.
“If I had a nickel, I would bet three cents on the latter groups. But I have no confidence. Virginians, by virtue of the fact that there’s an election every single year, can suffer from voter fatigue. That makes it harder to predict who – or what – will fire up whom.”