When Terry McAuliffe first announced his intention to run for governor of Virginia way back in November 2009, the likelihood of victory seemed slim. Known (if he was known at all) as a high-energy, slightly unhinged spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s losing presidential campaign, McAuliffe came off as both a carpetbagger and a political neophyte—a reputation that he failed to shake throughout his first amateurish primary run.
Widely respected as a Democratic fundraiser, McAuliffe certainly didn’t disappoint on that front: Over the course of his 2009 race against former State Representative Brian Moran and State Senator Creigh Deeds (the eventual winner) he managed to raise over $7.5 million. Unfortunately, the way he deployed that cash (with stunts like erecting a reported 25,000 “McAuliffe for Governor” signs at 2009’s Shad Planking festival) only reinforced the stereotype of a wealthy, out-of-touch D.C. operative who thought he could spend his way to the governor’s chair. Unsurprisingly, when primary day finally arrived, McAuliffe came in a distant second with a meager 26 percent of the vote.
State Senator Ken Cuccinelli, on the other hand, had a much easier time of it. Although he had barely won his previous senate election (besting his Democratic opponent, Janet Oleszek, by just 92 votes), he handily outpolled his rivals at the 2009 Republican nominating convention, and went on to decisively capture the job of attorney general with 58 percent of the vote in the general election.
Fast-forward four years, and the two candidates find themselves (somewhat astonishingly) in the exact opposite positions. This time around, McAuliffe—who was completely unopposed for the Democratic nomination—has managed to run a disciplined, low-key general election campaign, while Cuccinelli—who captured the Republican nomination by outfoxing Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, Governor Bob McDonnell’s heir apparent—has careened from one crisis to the next, never quite connecting with the moderate voters he desperately needs to win.
The result has been a polling gap that has trended increasingly in McAuliffe’s favor, with the three most recent statewide surveys finding him anywhere from seven to 10 points ahead of his Republican rival.
This trend, from all available evidence, has little to do with McAuliffe’s surging popularity. In fact, according to a recent Washington Post poll, both candidates’ favorability ratings remain under 50 percent. But McAuliffe has managed to win this battle of attrition by observing Woodrow Wilson’s timeless political maxim: Never murder a man who is busy committing suicide.
Cuccinelli’s shocking reversal of fortune can be attributed, for the most part, to three major factors. The first, and most basic, was the simple by-product of doing his job. When he was first elected, the only thing many voters knew about Cuccinelli was that he was a conservative lawmaker with a large family and a goofy grin. But as attorney general, his aggressive approach and increasingly confrontational Tea Party politics alienated many swing voters. By picking high-profile fights with the University of Virginia (over a prominent climate scientist’s state-funded research) and the Obama administration (over the Affordable Care Act), Cuccinelli soon became a national figure, but also an incredibly polarizing one.
The second factor was, to some extent, outside of Cuccinelli’s realm of control. While he had benefited greatly from Bob McDonnell’s well-run campaign for governor (a fact that he acknowledged on election night 2009 when he brandished a broom emblazoned with the awkward portmanteau “McBollinelli”), that also meant that he had much to lose when the supposedly virtuous McDonnell administration became mired in scandal.
Beginning with the revelation that the McDonnells had allowed a high-rolling “dietary supplement” peddler named Jonnie Williams to pick up a $15,000 catering tab from their middle daughter’s wedding, the amount and scope of previously undisclosed gifts to Virginia’s first couple has grown exponentially, and now includes such disparate baubles as a $6,500 Rolex, a $15,000 Bergdorf Goodman shopping spree, and a $10,000 engagement gift to yet another McDonnell daughter.
And it certainly didn’t help that Cuccinelli—who is, after all, Virginia’s highest elected law officer—accepted similarly unseemly gifts from Williams, including an undisclosed $3,000 vacation and a $1,500 Thanksgiving dinner. Cuccinelli’s poor response to this scandal, along with his initial refusal to return $18,000 in tainted donations (claiming that “there are some bells you can’t unring”), eroded one of the attorney general’s most important strengths: his moral rectitude.
The third, and possibly final, nail in Cuccinelli’s political coffin has been the recent government shutdown. A direct result of the type of hardline, take-no-prisoners politics that are the Tea Party’s (and Cuccinelli’s) stock in trade, the incredibly unpopular shutdown and near-default on the United State’s debt obligations has torpedoed the GOP’s popularity nationally, and with it Cuccinelli’s already moribund gubernatorial campaign.
Still, it ain’t over till it’s over, as baseball great Yogi Berra famously said. As of this writing, Cuccinelli still has one scheduled debate to try to make up lost ground, and there’s always the chance that recent revelations involving McAuliffe’s investments with a man convicted of deceiving terminally ill patients for profit will push his unfavorables even higher, giving Cuccinelli an opportunity to win simply by being the better of two bad options.
But given the unfocused, snake-bit quality of Cuccinelli’s campaign so far, his path to victory seems more arduous by the day. As Yogi Berra also once said, in words that could easily serve as the motto of losing candidates everywhere, “you’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”