Virginia Voters Don't Seem to Care Who The Next Governor Is

McAuliffe, Cuccinelli are still fairly unknown in the 2013 race.

(Steve Helber/AP)

The candidates have hit the campaign trail and the airwaves, but voters still don't know – and don't seem to care – about who is running for governor in Virginia just yet.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe leads Republican Ken Cuccinelli by about 5 percent – 42 percent to 37 percent – according to the latest poll, but 21 percent of voters said they were undecided. The survey conducted by the Democrat Public Policy Polling firm found more than a quarter of those polled said they aren't sure if they approve of Cuccinelli, the state's attorney general, and nearly 40 percent said the same of McAuliffe.

"Both of them have a real problem – they're viewed unfavorably but they're also not terribly well known," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Sabato says the fact that Republicans chose E.W. Jackson, a Marine Corps veteran and Harvard Law School graduate with a penchant for making bigoted statements, as a lieutenant governor candidate is a problem for Cuccinelli but not the ballgame.

"I do think it's a big deal Jackson was picked – they may overcome the problem, but you can't deny that it's a problem," he says. "The question is whether the swing voters are even going to show up. That's what the whole election is about – it isn't about E.W. Jackson, it's about whether or not McAuliffe can generate enough enthusiasm to get those Democrats out."

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McAuliffe, who lost a Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2009, is seen as a national party money-man with poor campaign skills and lacking Virginia ties.

Sabato says the off-year election also causes a lot of voter fatigue and turnout drop-off from the presidential year.

Cuccinelli, who has also been criticized by Democrats for being 'too conservative' for the swing-state of Virginia on things like abortion or gay rights, has been trying to focus his campaign on economic issues and Republicans say he's been successful.

"I believe that voters are smart enough to look at individuals as who they are and make a determination about that stuff," says Mike Leavitt, a Republican political consultant. "I think it's a lot of back and forth right now. Quite frankly, people are trying to get their kids out of school and plan their vacations."

Leavitt says Cuccinelli's concerns shouldn't focus on his running mate but on his fundraising.

"It's a question of seeing how much we're outspent," he says. "Are we outspent 2 to 1? We can probably survive that. Are we outspent 3 to 1 or 4 to 1? Well, that's a problem."

McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser with strong ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, has already launched a television advertising campaign to introduce himself to voters and cast Cuccinelli as out of the mainstream.

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Bob Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst, says the Democrats were able to successfully tie Republicans across the country to controversial comments made by single Senate candidates, most notably Missouri's Todd Akin, but it's not clear whether that tactic will work for McAuliffe.

"No one knows quite how it will play out," he says.

And while he agrees Republicans are fearful of how much they could be outspent, he says McAuliffe's own baggage offers plenty of opportunity for victory. Republicans have already begun to capitalize on some failed business ventures and poke holes at McAuliffe's claims of job creation.

"[Democrats] fear this campaign of painting McAuliffe as an undocumented Virginian who doesn't have the qualifications to be governor could resonate with some people," Holsworth says. "Cuccinelli is not going to run to the center, but he's going to run as a populist – a guy who is against the elites of all kinds."

Tom Jensen, polling director for PPP, which released the latest survey Wednesday, said many voters are just now beginning to pay attention to the race.

"The bottom line on all of these Virginia races is that there's a long way to go," he wrote in a memo accompanying the poll results.