Could Ken Cuccinelli have won the Virginia governor's race?

It didn't take long after Democrat Terry McAuliffe'scloser-than-expected victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race for the second guessing to begin. One of the main questions from state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli's camp: did they lose because the national party - and its deep pockets - abandoned them?

Cuccinelli strategist Chris LaCivita suggested as much in an interview with the Washington Post after the election. "There are a lot of questions people are going to be asking and that is, was leaving Cuccinelli alone in the first week of October, a smart move?" he told the Post after Cuccinelli had conceded late Tuesday night. "We were on our own. Just look at the volume [of ads]."

The fury ran even deeper among conservative activists. "WE COULD HAVE WON THIS RACE," radio host Mark Levin wrote in an all-caps message on his website. "GOP ESTABLISHMENT AND DONORS LEFT THE FIELD. NOW, NOT ONLY THE LIBERALS BUT THE RINO MOUTHPIECES CONTINUE WITH THEIR MANTRA ABOUT THE DEAD TEA PARTY AND THE RINO FUTURE. ABSOLUTELY APPALLING!" "RINO" is Republican shorthand for "Republican in name only," a derogatory term used by conservatives to slam politicians they think do not adhere to their principles.

Another talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, said on the air that the GOP "simply didn't want a tea party candidate winning" in Virginia. "They coulda won that race, folks," he said.

The Republican National Committee contributed $3 million to help elect Cuccinelli and the Republican ticket, as opposed to $9 million spent to help Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 (a number that a Republican source called "unprecedented"). In a memo the day after the election, the group touted the work on their infrastructure, voter contact and minority outreach they built, which they said will be critical in elections in years to come.

"We came into the 2013 election cycle with a plan to fund and run a top-notch ground game and minority engagement program. Our efforts along with the widespread disappointment in ObamaCare helped keep this race close," said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

Sure, more money could have helped - but even an additional $6 million from the RNC to match its 2009 spending wouldn't have closed the $14 million gap in spending between McAuliffe (who spent $32,838,441) and Cuccinelli ($19,125,620).

The Republican Governors Association (RGA), by contrast, contributed $8.5 million, coming in as the largest donor to Cuccinelli's campaign. It was also $3 million more than they raised for McDonnell during the 2009 campaign. But their donations largely tapered off after the beginning of October - during the government shutdown, which might have hurt Republicans, but also during the troubled rollout of HealthCare.gov, which could have helped them. From Oct. 10 to 29 they gave Cuccinelli no money, and only pitched in a final push of about $140,000 on Nov. 1, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

"The RGA used the same model that worked in Virginia in 2009, providing a combination of direct contributions and in-kind ads. We donated cash to the Cuccinelli campaign early and often, and were still donating in the final week," said Executive Director Phil Cox, who added that the RGA also encouraged other conservative and Republican organizations to "step off the sidelines" and get more involved in the race.

The group's spokesman, Jon Thompson, called claims that the RGA hadn't done enough "ludicrous."

An RGA official told CBS News in early October that the race would likely come down to turnout. But at the end of the day, McAuliffe managed to turn out more of his supporters than Cuccinelli did - and Cuccinelli turned out a smaller percentage of Republicans than McDonnell did in 2009, according to exit polls.

Turnout among self-identified Democrats was 37 percent, versus 32 percent among self-identified Republicans (those numbers were almost exactly reversed in 2009). Also down: voting among self-identified white evangelicals (27 percent in 2013 versus 34 percent in 2009) and conservatives (36 percent in 2013 versus 40 percent in 2009). Cuccinelli did have a far better showing among independents, winning that group by 9 points over McAuliffe, but it couldn't make up for low turnout among the base.

Did McAuliffe's supporters like him more than Cuccinelli's supporters liked their candidate? No. Fifty-one percent of McAuliffe supporters said he got their vote because they strongly favored him as a candidate; a higher percentage, 57 percent, said the same of Cuccinelli. But one area where more money could have helped Cuccinelli was to turn more voters against his opponent. Seventeen percent of McAuliffe's votes came from people who said they voted for him because they disliked Cuccinelli. Just nine percent of Cuccinelli voters said the same of McAuliffe.

Turnout persisted as an issue with Cuccinelli's supporters, even with the upside-down favorability of the Affordable Care Act in Virginia. Although 53 percent of voters said they opposed Obamacare, 19 percent of them still voted for McAuliffe. Cuccinelli got fewer votes among those who oppose the law (81 percent) than McAuliffe did among those who supported it (88 percent).

So would more cash from the national party have spelled victory for Cuccinelli? "I can't deny the possibility that more Republican money might have made a difference. Would it have made a difference of 60,000 votes? I don't know," William Galston, the senior fellow in the governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told CBSNews.com. But Galston authored a blog post outlining three other reasons he thinks McAuliffe did well - and Cuccinelli did poorly - in the race.

The biggest factor he pointed to is what he termed "the ideology gap." While 41 percent of the electorate thought McAuliffe was too liberal, a full 50 percent thought Cuccinelli was too conservative. Plus, there was a substantial difference in how unified the parties were: while McAuliffe did well across the spectrum of liberal, moderate and conservative Democrats, Cuccinelli performed 17 points worse among moderate and liberal Republicans than he did among conservatives.

"That's a really rough hurdle to overcome, when you begin with half the electorate that's made an all-things considered judgment that you're just not on the right place on the spectrum for them," Galston said.

He also pointed to Cuccinelli's relatively poor showing against Virginia's well-educated population, trailing by 22 points among the 29 percent with a post-graduate education, and the 18 percent of voters who are single women, where he trailed by 32 percent.

CBS News' Fred Backus contributed to this report.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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