Has Virginia Turned Blue?

Written by . Posted in 2014 Campaigns, Featured, Polling, Virginia

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Published on January 28, 2013

Meet Virginia. No, we’re not talking about the iconic song by the musical group Train, but instead the state which gave us George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and so many other influential American political leaders. The real story in Virginia isn’t why it was the birthplace of so many remarkable individuals, but it is about why this historically conservative state is trending so far to the left.

George W. Bush won this state by more than eight points in 2004, in what was a close election nationwide. Four years later, Barack Obama won it by a little more than six points, an astronomical 14 point swing in only four years. Obama again carried the state in 2012, but this time by a much smaller margin of only three percent. On the surface this would look like a positive trend for Republicans heading into three hugely important races (the 2013 Gubernatorial, the 2014 Senate and the 2016 Presidential), but recent polling should make both the RNC and Virginia Republicans very, very nervous.

According to polling done by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling (PPP), Republicans are in big trouble when it comes to all three upcoming races. For the 2013 Gubernatorial, PPP has former DNC Chair and Friend-of-Bill Terry McAuliffe with a strong lead over likely GOP opponent Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s Attorney General:

Likely Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe leads likely Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli by five points (46-41) in PPP’s first 2013 poll of the state.

Cuccinelli, currently the state’s Attorney General, has much higher name identification than McAuliffe, who failed to get his party’s nomination four years ago, despite his establishment support and fundraising advantage. Only about half of voters say they are familiar with McAuliffe, but almost three-quarters are with their A.G. If name recognition is neutralized at this point, McAuliffe’s lead jumps to 13 points (52-39), suggesting he could do even better as he begins to officially campaign for office.

The race is not all about name I.D., however. Cuccinelli’s raw favorability rating (29%) is slightly better than McAuliffe’s (25%), but his negatives are far higher (45% versus 26%). Part of Cuccinelli’s problem is he is divisive within his own party—23% of Republicans see him unfavorably. With GOP voters who dislike Cuccinelli personally, McAuliffe actually leads by an even larger margin than he does electorate-wide (47-40). Thus, each candidate gets 81% of his own party’s support, but McAuliffe pulls more (11%) of the GOP than Cuccinelli does of Democrats (6%).

Senator Mark Warner is a heavy favorite to keep his seat in 2014, with polling suggesting that he is the state’s favorite politician:

PPP’s newest Virginia poll finds Mark Warner in a strong position no matter who the GOP puts up against him next year. Warner continues to be the state’s most popular politician, with 52% of voters approving of him to only 31% who disapprove.

Bob McDonnell has solid numbers too, with a 48/35 approval spread. Even so he would trail Warner 52/42 if he tried to run for the Senate next year. The rest of the Republicans we tested do far worse. Bill Bolling would trail by 18 points at 53/35. Eric Cantor, who’s a very unpopular figure with a 27/44 favorability rating, trails Warner 56/37. And likely 2013 Gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli does the worst in a hypothetical head to head with Warner, trailing 57/36. Barring some dramatic reversal of Warner’s popularity he looks safe for next year.

Though it is a long way off and there are no nominees for either side (sorry Joe Biden), polls are suggesting that Democrats are seen as more favorable overall when it comes to the 2016 Presidential contest, and with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already a strong favorite, Virginia could be a key state on her path to the White House.

There is one fairly simple and obvious reason as to why Democrats are suddenly so popular in Virginia: government. Northern Virginia encompasses the Washington D.C. suburbs, and these areas are loaded with people whose entire livelihoods are dependent upon the unrestrained growth of a monolithic federal government. Lobbying firms, defense contractors and federal employees all have a vested interest in ensuring that the gravy continues to flow from D.C., and most of them are located in Virginia, ironically enough, enjoying the very policies that were enacted by conservative Republican leaders at the state level.

However, there is a possible silver lining here. For one thing, Republican Party of Virginia isn’t sitting by quietly. Last week, the Republican-controlled Virginia Senate passed a redistricting proposal which would likely give Republicans clear control of that body for a decade or more. Though the move wasn’t without some controversy, it did display a clear understanding on the part of Republicans in the Commonwealth of the challenges that they are facing.

There is also some polling data which paints a slightly rosier picture of the Virginia governor’s race than Public Policy Polling does:

The Virginia governor’s race is a dead heat, according to a poll released Wednesday, with both candidates struggling to become a household name despite years in the public spotlight.

A Christopher Newport University survey found 31 percent of registered voters preferred Terry McAuliffe in the race, putting him in a virtual tie with Ken Cuccinelli, who finished with 30 percent. About a third of Virginians were still undecided. Neither candidate is well-known, with nearly half of those polled indicating they had no opinion of McAuliffe and four in 10 saying they were undecided on Cuccinelli.

With Republicans in clear control of the state’s legislature (in part, thanks to some savvy maneuvering) and with 8 of 11 Members of Congress from the state being Republican, there is reason for optimism as long as state republicans don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal.