With Obama on way, Democrat widens lead in crucial governor's race

CNN
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - 9:46am

With one week to go until Election Day, a new poll indicates Democrat Terry McAuliffe has opened up a double-digit lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the much-watched battle for Virginia governor.

The release of the Washington Post/Abt SRBI survey Tuesday morning comes a few hours after McAuliffe's campaign announced that President Barack Obama would campaign with the candidate in northern Virginia on Sunday.

With the clock ticking towards Election Day, both McAuliffe, a businessman and politically well-connected former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, are bringing out some of the biggest names in their parties to energize the base in what's expected to be a low-turnout contest.

According to the poll, McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli 51%-39% among likely voters in the Commonwealth. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who made the most of voter discontent with the two major candidates, stands at 8%.

McAuliffe's 12-point lead in the poll, which was conducted Thursday through Sunday, is up from an 8-point margin in the Washington Post's previous poll conducted last month. McAuliffe was up by the high single digits in six surveys from other organizations since the start of September.

While the previous polls all indicated a healthy gender gap in the race, the new Washington Post survey suggests a huge one, with McAuliffe and Cuccinell tied among men but McAuliffe up by 24 percentage points among women.

One of the top non-partisan political handicappers, The Cook Political Report, moved its rating of the race from "Lean Democratic" to "Likely Democratic."

Goverment shutdown hurt Cuccinelli?

Cuccinellli, a conservative, was careful during the 16-day long partial federal government shutdown not to criticize his GOP allies in the House, whose push to couple dismantling the federal health care law to funding the government led to the shutdown.

After the the shutdown ended, Cuccinelli didn't give a firm answer of whether he would have supported the vote to reopen the government and raise the nation's debt ceiling, saying "I don't know whether I would have voted for it."

Democrats pounded Cuccinelli throughout the crisis.

Virginia is home to a large number of federal workers and the poll indicates that more than a third of registered voters questioned said they were inconvenienced by the shutdown. And of the 55% who say the shutdown is very important to their vote, McAuliffe holds a more than 2-1 advantage.

McAuliffe's campaign and national and state Democrats have long tried to paint Cuccinelli as too conservative for mainstream Virginia voters. According to the poll, more than half say Cuccinelli's views on most issues are too conservative and 36% say they are "just about right." About half say McAuliffe's views are "just about right," with four in 10 saying he's too liberal.

Energizing the base

While McAuliffe leads in all the public opinion polls and he and his allies have greatly outraised and outspent Cuccinelli and the outside groups backing the GOP candidate, this is expected to be a low-turnout, off-year election which tends to trend older and slightly more conservative. That's why both campaigns are putting the emphasis in the homestretch in getting their voters out to the polls.

The Washington Post survey's release comes as McAuliffe campaigns Tuesday for a third out of four straight days with just about the biggest star in his party, former President Bill Clinton, who's a close friend.

Clinton's urging Democratic voters to turn out.

"In presidential years a group that looks like America shows up and then in your governor's race years and next year in the midterm election years when you elect all of the House of Representative members, a third of the Senate and then in most other states most of the governors, most of the legislatures, a different America shows up."

And Obama's appearance on Sunday will be the first time he's teamed up with McAuliffe on the campaign trail. The next day, on the eve of the election, Vice President Joe Biden will campaign with McAuliffe in northern Virginia.

Conservative stars pitch in for Cuccinelli

While Cuccinelli can't count on any presidents or former presidents joining him on the campaign trail, he is getting a helping hand from some conservative favorites.

Even though he's considered a hero to many tea party supporters and other grassroots activists thanks to his very public conservative crusades, including his push against Obamacare, Cuccinelli is bringing in the cavalry to help bring out conservative voters to the polls.

He teams up with with two-term Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has strong credentials with fiscal and social conservatives, on Tuesday.

On Monday, Cuccinelli was joined at three events with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who's become one of the biggest stars of the conservative movement. At an event in voter-rich northern Virginia, Paul touted that Cuccinelli was "the first attorney general to sue over Obamacare," and went onto predict that "he'll be a leader in defending Virginia against an overzealous government."

Earlier this month former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a 2008 GOP presidential candidate and current Fox News and talk radio host, joined Cuccinelli on the campaign trail, as did Nikki Haley, South Carolina's Republican governor.

Last week Cuccinelli was joined by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, on a conference call. And former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who last year battled eventual Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney deep into the primary calendar, is using his political action committee to recruit supporters to knock on doors for Cuccinelli this weekend.

Cuccinelli campaign defends strategy

The cavalcade of surrogates, along with a reduction of ad spending in the more moderate Washington D.C. Suburbs in northern Virginia, suggests that the Cuccinelli campaign is concerned that conservative voters won't turn out in big numbers, and it also suggests that the Republican candidate has waved the white flag on trying to appeal to the increasing number of moderate voters in purple state Virginia.

But the Cuccinelli campaign says focusing on conservatives should not be interpreted as a sign of trouble, but instead says getting the base voters out is a common strategy in the final days of any campaign. They add that they are doing exactly what the McAuliffe campaign is doing in using Bill Clinton on the campaign trail.

"Attorney General Cuccinelli is grateful to have the support of great conservative leaders like Governor Haley, Chairman Ryan, Senator Paul and Governor Jindal in the homestretch of this campaign. They're supporting Ken because he has a principled, positive Virginia's future and substantive plans to create 58,000 jobs and diversify the economy," Cuccinelli Communications Director Richard Cullen told CNN.

The winner of the election will succeed outgoing Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who won a similar low-turnout contest four years ago.

"While I'm sure they are anxious, I think they are working on shoring up their base mostly. The Cuccinelli people have for months thought this was going to end up being more of a base election than not, and I think they have run their campaign with that in mind," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

"My sense is that while Republicans feel it is a very long shot, they hope that if turnout is about what it was in 2009 and if they get their base out, they might still have a shot."

Third party candidate a factor in race

The support from Rand Paul, as well as a recent endorsement from the senator's father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a three-time presidential candidate who enjoys strong support from libertarians, comes as Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, is preventing Cuccinelli from locking up the GOP vote.

According to the Washington Post poll, McAuliffe was winning 94% of Democrats while Cuccinelli was taking only 85% of Republicans. A Quinnipiac University survey released last week had similar numbers. Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling institute, said one of Cuccinelli's biggest obstacles is failing to win the support of an overwhelming majority of his party.

"If Cuccinelli can't bring more Republicans home, he is likely to be toast," Brown said.

Health care a factor in the race

Cuccinelli, a longtime opponent of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, has made the law a big part of his campaign.

"That's what's on the ballot November 5, folks. If you want to hold back the tide of Obamacare, I need your vote on November 5. And if you think everything's peachy with Obamacare, there's a candidate on the ballot for you, and it's Terry McAuliffe," Cuccinelli said Monday.

Tuesday Cuccinelli's campaign went up with new TV commercial that touted him as the candidate to "stop Obamacare."

And Cuccinelli was quick to respond to the news that Obama would campaign with McAuliffe just days before the election.

"It's telling that in the final moments of the campaign for governor, Terry McAuliffe has decided to campaign with President Obama. The move makes official what we have already known to be true: McAuliffe's unwavering support for the President's signature legislative achievement, Obamacare," said Cuccinelli.

But the Washington Post poll indicates that likely voters say they trust McAuliffe more than Cuccinelli when it comes to health care, even though the rollout of the new health law is been a public relations nightmare.

Much Watched Race

Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states to hold elections for governor in the year after a presidential contest, resulting in outsized attention. And with the Garden State's Republican governor, Chris Christie, holding a huge lead over his Democratic challenger in his re-election bid, the Virginia race is considered the only competitive statewide contest this year.

If McAuliffe wins, he would break a long streak in Virginia gubernatorial contests. In the last nine elections, the political party controlling the White House lost the governor's race in the Old Dominion.

Republicans currently control 30 of the nation's governorships.

The Washington Post/Abt SRBI poll was conducted October 24-27, with 1,061 registered voters, including 761 likely voters, questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error for likely voters is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

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