It’s a contest driven by caricatures.
The Virginia governor’s race, one of this year’s marquee U.S. political contests, features Democrats painting Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as an anti-abortion rights extremist bent on banning the procedure even in cases of rape and incest. Cuccinelli allies portray his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, as an insensitive husband who left his crying wife and newborn in a car to attend a political fundraiser.
The target audience for both: women, whose outsized turnout and support in last year’s presidential election helped win the state for President Barack Obama, and whose loyalties and voting enthusiasm may be the most important factor in determining who prevails in the gubernatorial contest.
“Every group of voters is important, but you could argue that women, particularly suburban women, particularly independent suburban women, are chief among equals,” said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, a veteran of Virginia campaigns who isn’t affiliated with McAuliffe’s. “They’re make-or-break, because they’re a growing percentage of the electorate, and they are swing voters.”
The contest is heating up as the Republican Party of Virginia’s convention opens today in Richmond, where Cuccinelli is scheduled to speak tomorrow and officially capture his party’s nomination. McAuliffe’s candidacy was certified in April after no one filed to challenge him.
A June special election for a Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat and the Virginia governor’s race in November will be the premiere tests of the staying power of the diverse electorate that last year re-elected Obama. If Democrats can hold those voters, their prospects of getting them back out to the polls will improve for the 2014 midterms, when control of the U.S. Senate will hang in the balance.
The 2012 presidential election, in which Obama carried Virginia over Republican nominee Mitt Romney by 51 percent to 47 percent, tells the story of the importance of the female vote. Exit polls indicate that women supported Obama over Romney by a 9-percentage point margin, 54 percent to 45 percent.
Women also turned out in greater numbers than their share of the population, with exit polls showing that ballots were cast by 53 percent of them while, according to the census, they comprise 52 percent of the state’s voting-age population. Male turnout was 47 percent, while they are 48 percent of the state’s voting-age population.
Republicans say their study of the 2012 vote shows the gap was wider. Turnout by women was 54.5 percent compared to 45.5 percent among men, according to one Republican strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe his party’s analysis of Virginia’s voter file. That 9-percentage point discrepancy is more than double the population difference between the sexes in Virginia shown in the census.
McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, and his allies are working to galvanize women voters this year, reminding them of Cuccinelli’s opposition to abortion rights and other social views. Cuccinelli and Republicans are seeking to blunt the influence of women voters, chiefly by sowing doubts among them about McAuliffe’s likability while steering clear of abortion and other social issues and focusing on ideas for stoking economic recovery.
The competition is taking place as some recent public polls show the race could go either way. A Quinnipiac University survey released yesterday showed McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli among registered voters by 5 percentage points, 43 percent to 38 percent, with 17 percent undecided.
An NBC News/Marist Poll conducted April 28-May 2 showed Cuccinelli essentially tied with McAuliffe, supported by 45 percent of Virginia’s likely voters compared to 42 percent for the Democrat -- a lead within the survey’s margin of error.
Both surveys found substantial gender gaps, with McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli among women by some 15 percentage points, while the Republican led among men by roughly the same margin.
The struggle to influence women voters intensified this week when the Democratic Party of Virginia began running robo-calls that said Cuccinelli was claiming to be focused on the economy when his “real priority” is to ban abortion, including in cases of rape and incest.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund, a Washington-based group that backs candidates supporting abortion rights, started airing digital advertisements showing a Cuccinelli cut-out figure butting into the middle of weddings and popping up between women and their doctors at medical offices. The ad says: “To keep Ken out of your doctor’s office, keep him out of the governor’s mansion.”
The efforts seek to reprise last year’s Democratic strategy, in which the party worked nationally to tie Romney to what it called a “war on women,” based upon his support for de-funding Planned Parenthood and opposition to abortion rights, and in Virginia sought to tie him and the years unsuccessful Senate candidate, George Allen, to state legislators who had pressed for mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds for expectant mothers seeking abortions.
“When voters learn about politicians’ extreme views on women’s health, they reject those politicians,” said Dawn Laguens, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president.
She said a Cuccinelli governorship would be “disastrous” for Virginia women and that “as we saw in 2012, these issues will determine how they will vote.”
Kay Coles James, a former President George W. Bush appointee who is backing Cuccinelli, said the strategy will boomerang on Democrats with women, who want to hear the economic and education message the Republican will promote in his campaign.
“They’re beginning to get a little bit annoyed with a stereotype of them as women, that they’re only concerned with one issue of abortion rights or reproductive rights or health, as if all Democrats have to do is raise that flag and then they win,” James said in an interview. “Women drive large portions of this economy. They care about jobs. They care about education, and Ken Cuccinelli is doing a far better job of gender equity by talking to them about those issues.”
Still, reproductive rights issues have been a prominent part of Cuccinelli’s agenda. He has advocated for a “personhood” bill to give rights to a fertilized egg, fought for stricter regulations on abortion clinics and supports de-funding Planned Parenthood. He has made little mention of those positions in the governor’s race. His focus has been on rolling out aspects of his economic plan, including a tax-cut proposal and an energy development initiative unveiled yesterday.
His campaign says Democrats are trying to distract attention from McAuliffe’s inadequacies as a candidate and failures as a businessman by focusing on social issues.
Cuccinelli “is running on issues important to all women throughout the Commonwealth: growing our economy, creating jobs, and protecting our must vulnerable citizens,” said Anna Nix, a campaign spokeswoman. “As Attorney General, Ken has made cracking down on sexual predators and human trafficking a priority, and in the last two years has convicted more child predators than any previous two-year period in the office’s history.”
At the same time, the Republican and his supporters are trying to soften his image while tarnishing McAuliffe’s among women voters.
Cuccinelli’s campaign released a television ad in which his wife speaks into the camera about him, including his prosecution of child predators and human traffickers. It ends with an image of the candidate with his seven children, five of them girls.
His allies, including the Republican-aligned opposition-research group America Rising, has been calling attention to McAuliffe’s 2007 book “What A Party.” In one section he recounts leaving his wife, Dorothy, at the hospital as she was in labor to attend a Washington Post (WPO) party; in another he recalls stopping on the way home from the hospital after the birth of another child to attend a fundraiser, leaving his wife weeping in the car with their newborn son.
“I felt bad for Dorothy, but it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party,” McAuliffe writes, adding that by the time they got home, his wife was again “all smiles.”
“Nobody ever said life with me was going to be easy,” he wrote.
The contest’s increasing negativity has Democrats concerned that some women voters will be so turned off by the tone that they won’t vote, which would likely dash McAuliffe’s chances.
Obama won Virginia in 2008 by boosting turnout to a record high and winning by large margins among women and African American voters. The following year, the picture was dramatically different in the state’s governor’s race, as turnout plummeted to little more than half of what it had been in 2008. Republican Bob McDonnell won with 62 percent of the vote over Democrat Creigh Deeds.
McDonnell by law can’t run for re-election, and Democrats don’t want a repeat of what happened in the 2009 contest.
McAuliffe, in courting women’s voters, has scheduled multiple events to appeal to them. A fundraiser for him next month features First Lady Michelle Obama. Earlier this week he visited women-owned retail establishments in Winchester, Virginia, and yesterday he unveiled a “Women for Terry” coalition.
Even as he criticizes Cuccinelli, McAuliffe is seeking to make a broader economic case that will resonate with the voters he must turn out to win.
“You’ve got to make it a bigger argument -- it cannot just be, ‘He is bad on choice, and so vote against him,’ ” Elleithee said. “It has to be part of a broader narrative about how his agenda is harmful to women, and then the other side of that is: ‘Here is why you can trust me.’”
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