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Something Clinton This Way Comes

Will the GOP be ready?

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By JAY COST
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The governorship of Virginia has been held by some of the most eminent men in American history: Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Randolph, Henry Lee, James Monroe. And now, Terry McAuliffe will sit in their chair. Depressing? Perhaps, but it is worth remembering that for about half a century, the political machine of Harry Byrd selected Virginia governors based upon their loyalty to “the Organization.” If Virginia has seen better leaders than the Democratic apparatchik who served as chief fundraiser during the scandal-plagued Bill Clinton years, it should come as some comfort to denizens of the Old Dominion that it has (probably) also seen worse.

AP / Steve Helber

The former president campaigning with McAuliffe in October

AP / Steve Helber

What to make of the longer-term implications of the 2013 off-off-year elections, both in Virginia and in New Jersey, where Chris Christie cruised to an overwhelming victory? It is hard to judge what they mean for 2014 and beyond, although many pundits will try. These are but 2 states out of 50, and, moreover, the electorates that emerged last week will probably not be seen again. Such is the nature of low-turnout affairs a year before a midterm and three years before a presidential election. Still, there are some conclusions to draw about the broader national picture, especially looking at the two states together.

Let’s start with Virginia. Terry McAuliffe has all the sleaziness of Bill Clinton with none of the Southern charm or policy wonkery. Yet he managed to win a comfortable, if underwhelming, victory in a state that until recently had been solidly in the Republican column. The manner in which he accomplished this feat is what should interest conservatives, for he mimicked the old Clinton approach, which will surely be Hillary Clinton’s tack in 2016.

McAuliffe did exactly what his master did in 1996. First, he started with a solid base of support from those in the lower socioeconomic strata of society, in particular poor African Americans. According to the exit polls, he won 65 percent of those who make less than $30,000 a year, and 90 percent of African Americans. To this substantial group—about half  his total voting coalition—he added people at the high end of the socioeconomic strata. He won 57 percent of people with a postgraduate degree and 55 percent of people who make more than $200,000 a year. In Virginia, a state with a tight relationship to the federal government, these are people with great faith in the capacity of technocratic experts to manage society. Add their gentry liberalism (support for environmentalism, abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.), and they were easy McAuliffe targets.

But this is not enough in Virginia, especially the Virginia of 2013, a state whose electorate last week was not terribly disposed to the party in power. President Obama’s job approval in the exit polls was a weak 46 percent, identical to support for Obamacare. On top of that, the voters roughly split on who deserved blame for the government shutdown, with just a slight plurality pointing the finger at the Republicans. So how did McAuliffe get this indisposed electorate to back him?

That is where his comfort level with the upper echelon of society comes into play. McAuliffe followed a tired-but-true playbook: In his public appearances, he played the role of crusading populist, looking out for the people and not the powerful; behind the scenes, he massively outraised his opponent by currying favor with the powerful interests he publicly disclaimed. What to do with all that cash? With an electorate that is growing tired of big government, it is not enough for a Democrat as liberal as McAuliffe to paint a positive vision of the future. Instead, he had to scare the bejesus out of people, warning them in ad after ad that his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, is an extreme crypto-Puritan who would set the Old Dominion back a century or more.

It is in this way that McAuliffe pulled in just enough anti-Obama voters to win. While a majority of Virginia voters disapproved of the president, McAuliffe pulled in 11 percent of them. Of voters who opposed Obamacare, McAuliffe won 11 percent. This is not much by any stretch of the imagination, but elections are always fought at the margins—and, importantly, McAuliffe managed to win more Obama opponents than Cuccinelli won Obama supporters. In his quest, he was assisted enormously by a divided Republican party, including a donor class that never really gave Cuccinelli a second look. The state’s attorney general, of course, failed to help his own cause by running an inept campaign. Ditto the party activists who saddled Cuccinelli with a lieutenant governor candidate, E. W. Jackson, whose controversial comments put him too far outside the mainstream.

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