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Reading the Tea Leaves in Virginia
Jesse Richman, 11/7/2013

Last night the votes were counted in Virginia's state-wide elections for Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General along with all members of the House of Delegates.  The results defy the strong interpretations partisans of all stripes and on all sides would like to read into them. The electorate, in the end, fits no one's ideological box, and serves no party's crusade. 

Some Republicans are inclined to read in Cuccinelli's loss an upset driven by the Libertarian candidate.  But the Sarvis as spoiler line doesn't withstand basic scrutiny.  There was no Libertarian on the ballot for the two other state-wide races, both of them races that (with the same electorate) Republicans appear to have lost.  The outcome therefore rests more squarely on the major party candidates, their campaigns, and their positions.  

On the whole it was a good night for Democrats in the state-wide races.  McAuliffe and Northam won -- Democrats will hold both the Governor's mansion and the Lt. Governor's key swing vote in the state Senate. Pending a recount in the extremely close Attorney's General race, Democrats may capture that office as well.  

But Democrats who hoped to read in the election a dramatic repudiation of the Tea Party didn't get it.  The margin of victory was simply too small.  Republicans maintained a very solid -- nearly two to one -- advantage in the House of Delegates, and the victory margin for McAuliffe was much narrower than most of the polls had predicted. Late deciders and late mobilization swung decisively toward Cuccinelli as the extent of the health exchange implementation train wreck began to be apparent.  

On Obamacare, there must be a number of Democratic Senators privately wishing they had acceded to the House's final pre-shutdown offer that the individual mandate merely be delayed by a year.  It would have saved Democrats hours of heartburn Tuesday night by taking some of the pressure off a health exchange system not yet ready for prime time.  Yet the fact that Cuccinelli still lost should give pause to Republicans who think they can win on the issue in 2014 and 2016.  Everything depends upon the way the exchange system works over the next several months. That jury is still out. 

There are some key takeaways from this election though.  

1. Candidates matter.  Given the flaws in McAuliffe's candidacy, the parlor game of imagining a different outcome had Bill Bolling led the Republican ticket seems at least plausible.  Cuccinelli's abrasive pursuit of absolutes generated enmities and enemies that a more prudent pursuit of similar principles would not have done. 

2. Voter mobilization matters.  McAuliffe consciously sought to emulate the community organizer and volunteer based turnout machine Obama built in 2008 and 2012.  It worked.  Republicans' continued failure to emulate the Democratic model is at their great peril.  Belated Republican efforts to learn from the political science research on which the Obama machine was built may begin to bear fruit in upcoming elections, but they didn't here in Virginia. Democrats were visible and engaged on campus and in the community.  Republicans were often awol. 

3. Money matters. McAuliffe was able to win (and build his campaign machine) in part through his ability to access much more campaign money.  The need to raise money will continue to shape our politics in significant ways. 

4. Ethics matter.  Were it not for the Star Scientific scandal swirling around the Governor's mansion, Cuccinelli's campaign strategy would have worked much better.  And given the margin, he could well have won.  Hopefully McAuliffe will take up Cuccinelli's call for a special session of the General Assembly to amend and improve Virginia's disclosure and ethics laws.  Voters' trust (and election outcomes) are at stake when politicians dance to the edge of corruption with their 'friends' the big political donors.  Better and stronger rules are needed.

5. Virginia's appetite for negative political commercials has been sated.  Cuccinelli and McAuliffe took each other down so successfully that they motivated more than 140 thousand Virginians to vote for a third party candidate many knew little about.  Although pointing out the opponent's flaws and unpopular positions is an essential part of the democratic process, an exclusive focus on the opposition's limitations will send the electorate in search of new options, and it also deprives the winner of a clear mandate to lead the state anywhere. 

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