Va. Governor's Race May Be Proxy For Broader National Debate

The partial government shutdown could deliver its first political victim in Tuesday's elections. Republican Ken Cuccinelli is trailing in the Virginia governor's race. Opponents have tried to tar Cuccinelli with the shutdown and other unpopular Tea Party policies. Cuccinelli is linking Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe to the troubled rollout of Obamacare.

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Last month's government shutdown could deliver its first political victim tomorrow. Republican Ken Cuccinelli is trailing in the Virginia Governor's race. During a campaign appearance this weekend, President Obama tried to tie Cuccinelli to the shutdown, and also to the Tea Party. Cuccinelli, in turn, tried to link his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, to the troubled rollout of Obamacare.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the Virginia race is shaping up as a proxy for the broader national debate.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Most polls show Democrat Terry McAuliffe comfortably ahead in the Virginia governor's race. But President Obama warned supporters at a get-out-the-vote rally yesterday not to get too cocky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Virginia, historically, has always been a swing state, and this race will be close, because past races in Virginia have always been close.

HORSLEY: McAuliffe's opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, is backed by the Tea Party, and that's become something of a liability in Virginia. The state receives more federal dollars per person than any other besides Alaska. McAuliffe was quick to remind supporters his opponent campaigned alongside Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the architect of last month's government shutdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

TERRY MCAULIFFE: We are not going to forget that Ken Cuccinelli sided with the Tea Party against Virginia families. We're not going to forget the parents who had to tell their kids that they couldn't work because of Washington dysfunction.

HORSLEY: In the waning days of the campaign, though, the shutdown has been eclipsed by the problem-plagued launch of the new health insurance exchanges. Cuccinelli, who unsuccessfully sued to block the health care law as Virginia's attorney general, is trying to capitalize on those problems to rally his own supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KEN CUCCINELLI: If you want to hold back the tide of Obamacare, I need your vote on November 5th.

HORSLEY: Neither Obama nor McAuliffe mentioned the president's signature health care initiative yesterday. One of Obama's only references to health care concerned Cuccinelli's efforts to restrict women's access to abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: You don't create jobs and help the people of Virginia by trying to restrict the health care choices that women make.

HORSLEY: Larry Sabato, who heads the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says Cuccinelli's stances on abortion and other social issues have cost him in a state that's increasingly moderate. Still, Sabato says Obama's last-minute push for McAuliffe is a double-edged sword.

LARRY SABATO: He is at a low point in his own popularity. And since the government shutdown, the focus has been on Obamacare, which is a negative, not just for President Obama, but for the Democratic Party. That's why Obama is making one appearance for Terry McAuliffe. Who campaigned for him for a week? Bill Clinton, who has a much higher popularity rating.

HORSLEY: Obama himself joked about all the high-profile help McAuliffe's been getting, saying he got tired of watching others have all the fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I thought, I want to get in on the action.

HORSLEY: Indeed, Obama may get more of a lift from McAuliffe's coattails than the other way around. A Democratic win in Virginia would help to offset the almost certain reelection of Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey. Christie, who's expected to cruise to victory tomorrow, told NBC's "Meet the Press" his fellow Republicans will have to take notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I think that what people are going to see is so unusual for what our party has created in the last couple of years, that invariably people are going to draw lessons from it, and I hope they do.

HORSLEY: Political analyst Sabato says the lesson for the GOP - from New Jersey and Virginia - is the same.

SABATO: When you nominate a social moderate who can achieve great things for a state - as Chris Christie has done in the eyes of his own voters - you can win. If you nominate a candidate who's viewed as out of the mainstream on social issues - as Ken Cuccinelli is by many Virginians - you're going to lose.

HORSLEY: Sabato suspects that lesson may be ignored, though, if Republicans instead conclude that Christie simply ran a great campaign, while Cuccinelli did not.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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