In the lackluster Virginia gubernatorial race, the threat of a federal government shutdown could just be the spark Democrat Terry McAuliffe needs to fire up voters against his Republican opponent Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, experts say.
The two candidates are fighting for votes in the populous northern Virginia region, which is packed with federal workers. A shutdown at the hands of House Republicans inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would disproportionately affect those voters and likely help tip the scale of the close race into McAuliffe's favor.
"Approximately half of the families in Northern Virginia have at least one person who works for the federal government – so it's tangible," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "If you've got someone in your family whose job depends upon the federal government to stay open, it's going to matter to you."
And while Cuccinelli has tried to distance himself from the national Republican brand in this instance because a federal government shutdown is so unpopular, by campaigning with supporters of the effort –such as Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. – he makes it easy for Democrats to lump him together with them.
During a campaign event Sunday, McAuliffe made the case the congressional squabbles over funding for President Barack Obama's signature health care law have no place in discussions for the overall federal spending deal.
"Virginia's economic health cannot be collateral damage in the tea party's ideological war," he said. "Everyone agrees that a government shutdown shouldn't be risked in negotiations—everyone except Ken Cuccinelli and his extreme tea party allies."
The Cuccinelli camp, however, has deftly tried to tie McAuliffe's ultimatum that he would fight with Virginia's Republican Legislature to expand the Medicaid program to his assent and support for threatening a shutdown as a negotiating tactic.
"While Terry McAuliffe continues to use a potential federal government shutdown to grandstand on his supposed bipartisan nature, the truth is that he's the one drawing red lines and threatening government shutdowns," said Anna Nix, a Cuccinelli spokeswoman in a statement Monday. "Asked how he would defuse the current situation in Washington, McAuliffe said he 'sided with Democrats who refuse to bargain.'"
But Sabato says at the end of the day, this could help McAuliffe overcome an enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic supporters.
"The effect to me is mainly pro-McAuliffe because he's looking for motivators to get Democrats out to vote; it's no secret that people are not in love with him," he says.