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Analysts say gubernatorial hopefuls Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe will have to get people to vote for them, not just against the other.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Southwest Virginia has been the stage for some of the highest-profile clashes between gubernatorial hopefuls Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe — and that could signal a critical role for the region’s voters in the November elections.
Each claimed the other didn’t really know Virginia in a squabble over whether U.S. 58 needed to have four lanes from end to end. Cuccinelli wants to tag McAuliffe as an enemy to coal. Democrat McAuliffe hits at how the Office of the Attorney General under Cuccinelli has backed gas companies in a legal battle with Southwest Virginia landowners over royalties, never forgetting to mention that one of the companies gave $111,000 to the Republican’s gubernatorial campaign.
“Coal is a fairly small part of Southwest Virginia’s economy, but it is important to its identity,” said political scientist Tom Morris, former president of Emory & Henry College.
As a result, Cuccinelli’s attempt to link McAuliffe with President Barack Obama’s efforts to crack down on emissions from coal-fired power plants, which coal interests, unions and conservatives call a war on coal, could resonate strongly in Southwest Virginia, he said.
“I think McAuliffe is trying to offset that with the gas royalties issue,” Morris said. “It’s the same thing as those ads about [former presidential candidate Mitt] Romney, with an individual saying how he was hurt.”
Southwest Virginia matters, political scientists say, even if the region is likely to go Republican in November.
“The Democrats know they’ll lose the Southwest as a whole, but margins matter,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said.
“They want to keep Cuccinelli to a small majority, and so they are pushing hard on the gas royalties case, while Republicans are tying McAuliffe to Obama on coal,” he added.
“The TV ads matter here too,” Sabato said. “McAuliffe wants to make Cuccinelli spend his precious dollars defending his base in the Southwest. That’s less Cuccinelli can spend in Hampton Roads, a real swing area.”
From Hampton Roads, however, Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, sees a big role in the election for Southwest Virginia.
“My sense is that the McAuliffe campaign takes the Roanoke area pretty seriously as a part of the state where they can at minimum put a dent in Cuccinelli, but also gain support,” he said. “I think that is why they have pushed the gas royalties issue so hard. I think they are seeing traction amongst voters on that issue. In short, I think it is hurting Cuccinelli.”
Kidd and Morris think McAuliffe is taking a lesson from Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s playbook.
“Remember, Warner did very well in both his gubernatorial campaign and his run for Senate after that in part by courting the rural parts of the state and effectively minimizing their strength for Republicans,” Kidd said.
“I don’t get the sense that the Cuccinelli campaign feels secure enough in the Roanoke area to take it for granted,” he added. “The southwest is the most Republican part of the state, but the question is how much enthusiasm do Republicans have for Cuccinelli. I think the Cuccinelli campaign recognizes that they can’t take the Southwest for granted, and I would expect to see them actively engaging their base as the weeks go on.”
Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, isn’t so sure.
Neither candidate has yet spent a lot of time in Southwest Virginia, he says. Neither he nor Morris expect that to change, either.
“Cuccinelli probably feels secure enough there that he can focus on swing areas of the state instead. That strategy makes sense. For McAuliffe, it is all about holding down his losses in the more rural, Republican leaning areas than it is about trying to compete with his opponent to win in those areas,” Rozell said.
In the end, enthusiasm and turnout across the state will be key to the election, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said in a recent Q & A with the RealClearPolitics website.
“The campaign up until now has become a rapid race to the bottom,” Bolling said, adding that that discourages the independent voters who really decide Virginia elections.
“I think Cuccinelli would love that. I think he likes the current direction of this campaign, because it’s turning off a lot of voters and that means they may stay home. The lower the voter turnout, the better the chance Cuccinelli has of winning,” said Bolling, who had wanted the GOP nomination this year but didn’t get it. Bolling has declined to endorse Cuccinelli.
“McAuliffe, I think his strategy is, he has to drive people to the polls. He’s got to boost voter turnout. I don’t think he can do that by attacking Cuccinelli. I think he also has to offer some sort of positive vision that encourages people to vote for him, not just against the other guy.”
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