Washington Post polling shows the Democratic businessman and fundraiser with a double-digit lead (51 percent to 39 percent) over Republican Ken Cuccinelli following a campaign ad blitz that shredded the sitting attorney general over his conservative views. It's not that voters love McAuliffe. They just don't like Cuccinelli -- and they really don't like the Republican Party.
Partly, this is Cuccinelli's fault. His conservative views on same-sex marriage and abortion do not resonate with many voters, especially women. He also suffered some collateral damage from Gov. Bob McDonnell's questionable practices in accepting gifts and cash donations for personal use.
But mostly, the polls suggest that general distaste for the GOP and the Republican role in shutting down the government has doomed Cuccinelli at a time when he ought to be celebrating his insight in leading the legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Fifty-five percent said the shutdown is very important to their vote.
For this, Republicans can thank their tea-party constituents in the House of Representatives and the singular Ted Cruz in the Senate -- the latter's Texas ovation and Iowa stampede notwithstanding. These were the actors who forced the shutdown and who, should Republicans begin losing gubernatorial and congressional races, would be the major reason. Disgust trickles down, over and out.
Seeing Virginia as a bellwether state does have certain limitations, including the fact that the percentage of registered Virginia voters personally inconvenienced by the shutdown (35 percent) was higher than the national average (22 percent). Even so, nationally, the shutdown and the dysfunction leading up to it are blamed on Republicans more than on Democrats or President Obama. A recent Post-ABC poll found that 81 percent of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, and 53 percent blamed Republicans. Twenty-nine percent blamed the president.
Republicans can try as they might to dissuade voters from this perspective, but they will convince only the lead singers in the choir. Even Republican House leaders, who never wanted to tie the ACA to funding the government, understand the damage that has been done. This includes the possibility that come 2014, Virginia's Democratic tilt could also indicate a possible reordering of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi, who would replace John Boehner and resume her seat as speaker should Democrats win enough seats, lately seems to have an extra spring in her step.
Whether Democrats are too soon counting their chickens depends on a few unknowns:
One is whether Republicans turn out in greater numbers than Democrats next week, the usual trend in off-year elections. Republicans tend to be more motivated, but more voters may not be enough. Not even the fact that McAuliffe's business dealings have raised eyebrows has been sufficient to make his opponent more attractive.
Another unknown is what happens when the next round of spending and debt-ceiling debates arise early next year. The temporary agreement that put federal employees back to work could result in a replay of the recent debacle unless Republican leaders can convince their Braveheart faction to stand down and defer to their elders.
This is a chance that probably needs liposuction, but Republicans have no other choice unless they're ready to go back home and bore their neighbors with stories of their principled martyrdom. The alternative is for the GOP to successfully recruit strong candidates to unseat their unruly, ideologically rigid contingent, which poses a significant challenge given recent gerrymandering that secured Republican incumbency in many districts.
Some GOP strategists would argue that getting rid of tea-party candidates is burning down the village to save it, given that internal disagreements are not about goals but tactics, which can be changed. There's obvious merit to this view, but the general view nationally of the tea party's effect on governance has been so negative that all Republicans suffer by association. Moreover, if the tea-party members of the House have demonstrated one prevailing trait, it is that they would rather perish than surrender, i.e. change tactics.
Finally, perhaps the pivotal unknown is whether the ACA gets past the "glitches" and becomes the full-on train wreck so oft-invoked by Republicans. Thus far, with millions losing their coverage and premiums rising for others, this, too, seems at least a coin toss if not a crapshoot.
So it isn't over yet, in Virginia or elsewhere, but Republicans have little time to regain the trust and confidence of the non-ideological centrist majority. It's time to dump the tea party in the Potomac.
Kathleen Parker is a Washington Post columnist. Her email address is email@example.com.
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