Tea Party Test in Virginia Harbinger for 2014 Senate Race

Call it a test case for the 2014 congressional elections. Tomorrow’s contest for Virginia’s next governor is drawing attention as a national harbinger, and it’s giving Republicans plenty to worry about.

Polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former national party chairman and fundraiser, ahead of Republican rival, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. If that’s the outcome of the race, McAuliffe would become the first candidate of a sitting president’s party in almost four decades to win election in the Old Dominion, a state that voted twice for both former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

“As Republicans, we have to ask, is there a business model issue here?” said former Virginia Republican Representative Thomas M. Davis III, director of federal affairs for Deloitte Consulting LP. “We have a Republican who’s opted to go the Tea Party route, and it’s absolutely clear it’s a losing strategy -- that’s going to be the message of this” election.

The contest has taken on national significance in its closing days, with each candidate working to portray his opponent as a poster boy for all that is wrong with his party.

McAuliffe, 56, who campaigned with Obama yesterday and appears with Vice President Joe Biden today, is painting Cuccinelli as an ally of the small-government Tea Party movement that orchestrated last month’s 16-day federal government shutdown.

Tea-Party Test

“Ken Cuccinelli has spent his career creating gridlock from the political fringe,” McAuliffe said during his appearance with the president in Arlington. “The question in this election is simple: Will the mainstream, bipartisan majority in Virginia be drowned out by the Tea Party?”

Obama said “this election is going to say a lot about Virginia’s future and about the country’s future.”

Cuccinelli, 45, who filed suit against the 2010 Affordable Care Act the day Obama signed it, is casting the race as a proxy fight over the health-care law. He’s banking on the president’s appearance with McAuliffe amid headlines about the botched Obamacare rollout to give him a late boost.

The Republican told reporters in a Nov. 1 conference call that the election “has quickly turned into at least in part a referendum on Obamacare, and it’s a very clear line between me, the first person in the country who fought it, and Terry McAuliffe, who didn’t think it went far enough.”

Running Behind

His bid to gain momentum by making an issue of the health-care law may come too late. A Quinnipiac University poll released today shows Cuccinelli trailing McAuliffe with support from 40 percent of likely voters, compared with 46 percent backing the Democrat. Cuccinelli’s campaign has suffered a financial disadvantage relative to McAuliffe’s. He raised just under $20 million for the race, compared with the Democrat’s $34 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

And Cuccinelli’s ties to the Tea Party movement, once considered an asset, carry risks after the shutdown drove the Republican favorability rating to a historic low of 28 percent, according to an Oct. 3-6 Gallup poll. He has appeared alongside a who’s-who of Tea Party-aligned Republicans, attending a fundraiser with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the architect of the federal shutdown strategy, as well as stumping with Republican Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio Florida, both elected with the small-government activists’ backing.

New Jersey Race

Polling experts and political strategists caution against over-interpreting the narrative of the race, particularly given that the other gubernatorial contest tomorrow in New Jersey -- in which a blowout re-election of Republican Governor Chris Christie in a Democratic-dominated state is expected -- may tell a different story.

The Virginia race features two flawed candidates, both have faced ethics charges, and a third-party contender, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who draws as much as 10 percent support in public polls. It’s also a contest that will be driven by turnout in a state with Republican, predominantly white exurbs and rural areas; Democratic, heavily African-American cities; and an ethnically diverse set of suburbs that can tip the results either way.

“It’s unlikely that in 2014 you’ll see this kind of environment in many other states,” said Peter A. Brown, who has tracked the race as assistant vice president of the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Any impact of the government shutdown, and the perception that voters blame Republicans more than Democrats for it, is magnified because such a large proportion of the federal workforce lives in Virginia.”

Federal Workforce

Virginia’s population includes more than 172,000 federal civilian workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, among the highest concentration per capita in the country.

Next year, the shutdown will be a distant memory for voters living in such states as Louisiana and North Carolina, where two of the nation’s most competitive Senate races will take place and the federal government isn’t a major employer, Brown added.

Yet Davis, a former chairman of Republicans’ House campaign committee, said the expected New Jersey win drives home the same lesson being learned in the likely Virginia defeat, that his party must run candidates with appeal beyond the Tea Party to attract independent voters.

“It’s not the Republican brand versus the Democratic brand,” he said. “It’s what kind of Republican are you.”

Conflicting Goals

Geoff Garin, McAuliffe’s polling adviser, said the race highlights a challenge facing Republicans in next year’s campaigns: to energize their core activists while simultaneously appealing to voters in the middle who typically determine the outcome of competitive races.

“Cuccinelli is emblematic of the Republican dilemma. It is impossible for them to do both of those things at the same time,” Garin said. “You cannot be the candidate of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, and get those people excited, and still be the candidate of the center.”

That dynamic could be on display in U.S. Senate races in Georgia and North Carolina next year, where Tea Party-aligned Republicans are vying to take on Democrats who are receiving some backing from the business community.

Some strategists say the Virginia experience demonstrates a need for Republicans to do more to differentiate themselves from their party, a lesson that Democrats must also learn at a time when both sides are suffering from basement-level approval ratings. While an Oct. 7-9 NBC-Wall Street Journal Poll found congressional Republicans the worse off of the two parties with a 70-percent disapproval rating, Democrats were also unpopular, with 59 percent viewing them negatively.

Own Identity

“Christie has built his own identity, his own brand, and I don’t know that Cuccinelli has been able to carve out a set of issues or a general persona that leads people to see him as distinct and unique from the Republican Party,” said Brock McCleary, president of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based Harper Polling and a former strategist for the Republican House’s campaign arm.

That doesn’t mean the health law’s failures can’t be a winning theme for Republicans in the midterm contests, he said.

“It will look different a year from now,” when higher costs and canceled insurance plans replace website failures as day-to-day realities for voters, McCleary said. “It will be the defining issue, and I don’t think this should lead Republicans to conclude that Obamacare won’t be a salient, vote-determinative issue” next year.

Dysfunctional Republicans

Whatever policy themes dominate congressional campaigns, Democrats argue that Virginia illustrates how they continue to benefit from a dysfunctional Republican nominating process driven by activists that yields candidates who can’t prevail in general elections.

“The Tea Party and extreme right-wing elements have a very strong voice, and what it shows is that Republicans can’t win if they nominate extreme candidates,” said former Democratic Representative Martin Frost of Texas, who led his party’s House campaign committee from 1995 to 1999. Republicans could improve their chances by choosing more centrist candidates, he added, yet they “seem hell-bent on making the same mistakes over and over again.”

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