Va. Gubernatorial Race Could Preview Congressional Midterms

Republicans and Democrats are looking at this year's race for governor in Virginia as a possible harbinger of the 2014 election. The contest pits Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against Democratic Party fundraiser Terry McAuliffe. Both candidates are strongly supported by their respective bases, but sport strong negatives among moderate voters. The outcome could come down to turnout.

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In Virginia, there is a close and closely watched contest for governor. Polls show an extremely tight race between Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and former Clinton fundraiser and Democratic Party chair Terry McAuliffe. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Over the strains of the country tune "You've Got to Stand for Something," a grinning Ken Cuccinelli strolled to the mic at the Republican state convention.

KEN CUCCINELLI: I humbly stand before you this morning to gratefully accept your Republican nomination in the race to be the 72nd governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

KEYES: Cuccinelli filed suit against President Obama's health care law and is revered by conservatives and Tea Party activists for his tax-cutting, anti-abortion, anti-gay rights beliefs. But while he tacked to the center in his speech and focused on creating jobs, growing the economy and a quality education system, Cuccinelli lashed out at Democrats who have labeled him an extremist.

CUCCINELLI: When did it become extreme to guard our Constitution from overreach?

(APPLAUSE)

TERRY MCAULIFFE: There is an enormous difference between the two tickets in this race.

KEYES: That's Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee at the Democratic Party of Virginia's Unity Breakfast in Richmond. McAuliffe is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a prolific fundraiser with close ties to the Clintons and a millionaire businessman who's never held office. He lost his bid to become his party's nominee for governor four years ago. Republicans have painted him as a Washington insider who's bringing beltway politics to the Commonwealth.

But McAuliffe stresses that he's lived in the same Virginia home for 21 years. He told the crowd his party's ticket is bipartisan because Republicans are too focused on divisive issues.

MCAULIFFE: This mainstream ticket focuses on the issues that matter to Virginians, reducing transportation gridlock, improving education and fostering economic development.

KEYES: Though both candidates say they're focused on jobs, there's been a lot of drama in what's turning out to be a nasty race. Cuccinelli made headlines in March when Democrats released a video of him linking the battle against slavery to the fight against abortion. Cuccinelli has also been subtly distancing himself from the lieutenant governor candidate, Bishop E. W. Jackson, whose views have been a target for Democrats. Virginia voters can split the gubernatorial ticket.

Jackson is an outspoken African-American minister and Marine Corps veteran who has described President Obama as an evil presence. Last year in a video, he compared Planned Parenthood to the Klu Klux Klan.

THE REV. E. W. JACKSON: Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was.

KEYES: Republicans meanwhile have painted McAuliffe as a Virginia outsider and questioned his focus on jobs. They note that his electric car company, Green Tech Automotive, built its plant in Mississippi, reportedly because Virginia officials were skeptical about the business model.

DAN PALAZZOLO: Cuccinelli's going to run against Washington, basically. And quite frankly, that theme is likely to resonate pretty well.

KEYES: University of Richmond political science professor Dan Palazzolo says voters will be considering both party's claims.

PALAZZOLO: Is the Republican ticket too extreme or is the Democratic ticket too tied to the federal government and to the Obama administration?

KEYES: Palazzolo says there's a sizeable number of undecided voters out there, so the candidates' positions are very important. He also notes that this will be a different group of voters from 2008 or 2012.

PALAZZOLO: You're going to get drop off from younger voters. You're going to get drop off from African-American voters. And that's kind of what happened in 2009.

KEYES: Both Palazzolo and current Virginia lieutenant governor, Republican Bill Bolling, say the outcome of this race will depend on turnout.

LT. GOV. BILL BOLLING: Most Republicans are going to line up behind Mr. Cuccinelli. The Democrats will line up behind Mr. McAuliffe. The election will be decided by that 20 to 25 percent of the more moderate and independent voters who show up on election day.

KEYES: Some pundits will see this election as a roadmap for what both parties should do to win the congressional midterm elections in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016. Allison Keys, NPR News, Washington.

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