Virginia Tea Party Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost a closer-than-expected contest for governor Tuesday to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a weak but well-financed and well-connected candidate.
By Wednesday morning, the political world was busy debating the meaning of the outcome in Virginia, where exit polls showed that voters expressed increasing antipathy to the Tea Party, and that it was women — particularly unmarried women — who propelled McAuliffe over the finish line.
We turned to longtime Virginia Republican Chris Saxman, a retired businessman and former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, where he is managing editor of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball political site.
Here's what they had to tell us today about the Tea Party, women and the effect that Obamacare and the government shutdown may — or may not — have had on the race.
NPR: The Virginia contest has been characterized by some as a referendum: Obamacare vs. the politics of the government shutdown. And that McAuliffe's narrow win suggests that voters have bigger issues with the Tea Party shutdown than the Obamacare rollout debacle. That's pretty simplistic, obviously, but how much did those issues affect the outcome?
Saxman: In the last month, those two issues did dominate and had a big effect on turnout. In the end, the reaction to Obamacare was more noticeable in the outcome, versus what polling had showed throughout. Voters really were not impacted by the Tea Party, per se, as it is too organic. This was a very negative campaign from the beginning, and the narrative against Cuccinelli was magnified by the shutdown. Clearly there was a winner — Terry McAuliffe. He raised a lot of money and spent it well on organizing his voters and getting them to the polls. That's what wins campaigns.
Kondik: I'm not sure that either the shutdown or the Obamacare rollout played outsized roles in this race. Democrats argue, and they have internal polling to back it up, that this race was pretty stable for the past several months. I'm inclined to agree, because even though the public polling overshot McAuliffe's victory margin, McAuliffe had led in the public polls for months, too. That suggests that the events of the campaign, and the national climate, did not dramatically alter this race. That said, I think it's reasonable to suggest that McAuliffe was slightly hurt in the end by President Obama's unpopularity and the Obamacare rollout. Ultimately, though, the electorate was too locked in to shift all that much in the final stages of the contest.
NPR: Women voted overwhelmingly for McAuliffe, especially unmarried women, though the overall percentage breaking for the Democrat was far less than recent polls suggested it might be. But what does it tell you that Republicans are hailing the fact that McAuliffe "only" won women by 9 points?
Saxman: It could be an indication that women see Obamacare in the same light that many women saw social issues — an infringement of their rights. Republicans should take little comfort in losing a key demographic, especially women, by 9 points.
Kondik: The truth is, women are almost always more Democratic than men are in nearly every race for which we have exit polls over the last decade. A 12-point gender gap in this race — McAuliffe won women by 9 and Cuccinelli won men by 3 — is a very normal result. In terms of the gender gap, there's nothing out of the ordinary for either party to crow about, really.
NPR: The dominant theme coming out of the Tea Party ranks this morning has been that the Republican National Committee "betrayed" or "sold out" Tea Party candidates, claiming that what they characterized as limited money it provided Cuccinelli left him at a great disadvantage, especially in the final weeks and while McAuliffe was still awash in funds. How would you characterize the RNC's role?
Saxman: Well, that fits their narrative of being anti-establishment. They cannot expect to run against the establishment and expect them to finance campaigns when their candidates are losing outside the margin of error at the time when funding decisions are made. So they were not "sold out" or "abandoned." Cuccinelli was losing when those decisions had to be made. Allocation decisions are some of the toughest ones in a campaign. Had Cuccinelli been within the margin of error, the money needed to close out the campaign might have been there to support the last two weeks on the air. If the shutdown had not occurred, and for as long as it did, the results would have been different. Actions have consequences. It was not retribution, it was political math.
Kondik: Republicans are probably privately happy that Cuccinelli is out of the picture — he's a controversial figure who would have said and done controversial things if he had been elected governor, which is also why the Tea Party really likes him. Again, though, it's not clear that the race changed all that much on Election Day. It's possible that the public polls were just off. Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had his own re-election campaign to execute, and helping Ken Cuccinelli wouldn't help Christie run up the score back home. Had Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling been the GOP nominee, I can definitely imagine more Republicans, including even Christie, coming to Virginia to campaign on his behalf.
NPR: Yesterday's races — not only in Virginia, where McAuliffe attracted some high-profile GOP business support, but in Alabama, where a Republican supported by the business community defeated a Tea Party opponent in a congressional primary — highlighted the party's business/Tea Party tensions. How significant is that split in Virginia, and how significant was it in determining last night's result?
Saxman: The business community in Virginia, like all constituencies, supports those who have earned their support. Many in the business community prefer candidates who focus on fiscal and economic issues. McAuliffe did a good job of winning many of those votes along with their contributions. He worked hard for that support.
Kondik: Plenty of establishment, business-oriented Republicans endorsed McAuliffe in this race, but ultimately the exit polls showed that Cuccinelli did just fine with self-identified Republicans: He won 92 percent of them, and McAuliffe won 95 percent of Democrats, meaning that both candidates did just fine with their own bases. In other words, for all the public breaks that Republicans had with Cuccinelli, the rank and file got behind their party's candidate, which is what we should expect in an era where ticket-splitting is uncommon and the vast majority of voters — yes, even those who call themselves independents — actually identify pretty strongly with one party or the other.
NPR: If you could summarize what led to last night's gubernatorial result in a sentence, what would it be?
Saxman: Terry McAuliffe worked hard to unite his party and won more votes than Ken Cuccinelli, whose campaign could not overcome internal party divisions — and, in a base-centric election, that matters.
Kondik: Faced with two unappetizing choices, Virginia voters took the lesser of two evils, ultimately deciding that Terry McAuliffe would rock the boat less than Ken Cuccinelli.