When a new poll of Virginia voters this week found a tight gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, it seemed like an outlier. For the past few weeks, surveys in the Old Dominion have shown the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee leading by a comfortable margin, and sometimes by double digits. (The RCP Average has him ahead by 8.5 points.) Such numbers should have been reassuring for McAuliffe, given Virginia's habit of choosing its governor from the opposing party of the president.
But a four-point race -- the margin that Quinnipiac (which has a slightly lower sample of Democrats than other polls) found this week -- might actually be right where Democrats want it heading into the weekend before Election Day. It's also where both sides figured the contest would be in this purple state.
For Democrats, a tight race could help mobilize key Obama-coalition members (African-Americans, Latinos and young voters) who are integral to Democrats' hopes of gaining an off-year win in the commonwealth. And for Republicans, a close race could wake up some of their sleepy constituents too.
Democrats emailed supporters on Thursday after the poll surfaced, portraying a high-stakes scenario that called for cash and turnout. "It's a dead heat," the email read. ". . . We'll all be kicking ourselves if we fall short on our opportunity to defeat Ken Cuccinelli and stamp out the Tea Party in Virginia and elsewhere."
on Sunday at an event intended to energize voters two days later. By Election Day, will have completed a nine-stop tour with his old friend. earlier this month in Northern Virginia -- a key bellwether. And Vice President Joe Biden will join McAuliffe on Monday, the day before voters head to the polls.
Obama won Virginia by four points in 2012 and seven points in 2008. But Republican Bob McDonnell won the gubernatorial race four years ago, beating his Democratic opponent by 18 points. Still, both sides predict a smaller margin for the victor this time. "Virginia is not a double-digit state. It's too purple," said one Virginia GOP campaign operative.
Democrats, however, see their hopes being buoyed by early voting trends, which they have been tracking the way Obama did in 2012 and using the president's campaign model for contacting voters and identifying their preferences and primary voting history, according to a party official associated with the coordinated campaign. More than 79,000 voters have already cast their ballots, and Democrats believe McAuliffe is leading by about 6,000 votes heading into the weekend, according to their calculations. They also expect McAuliffe to lead by roughly 1,200 votes among the additional 17,000 voters who have requested ballots.
For Republicans, the next few days will be spent mobilizing the electorate. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will campaign with Cuccinelli on Saturday in Spotsylvania and Woodbridge. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will also host two get-out-the-vote rallies with the Republican in Warrenton and Culpepper.
With news reports focused onover the past few years regarding health insurance coverage and Obamacare, Cuccinelli hopes to capitalize on voter anger and rally his base, which has been quieter than expected. This issue, his campaign says, is right in the candidate's wheelhouse, as he was the first state attorney general to file a lawsuit against the federal government over the health care law.
Cuccinelli said Thursday the president's appearance in Virginia on Sunday is good timing "because it crystallizes this race around his signature legislative accomplishment, Obamacare, which is falling apart before our very eyes."
But Democrats counter that the government shutdown, which furloughed federal and contractual workers in Northern Virginia, will have a lasting impact on the GOP brand, and they hope to garner support especially in Prince William and Fairfax counties.
While McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are the two big names in this race, third-party candidate Robert Sarvis could affect the outcome. Sarvis, a libertarian, garnered 9 percent support in the Quinnipiac poll. While neither Republicans nor Democrats think he will come close to that number on Election Day, each side hopes to pull from the voters he attracted in the surveys.
To that point, former Rep. Ron Paul, perhaps the nation's best-known libertarian, will campaign for Cuccinelli on Monday night in Richmond. His son Rand, the senator from Kentucky, stumped for Cuccinelli in Virginia Beach and Fairfax.