Terry McAuliffe's Focus on Women Sealed a Close Victory

By swamping Virginia voters with advertising, McAuliffe ekes out win.

Terry McAuliffe greets supporters during an election-night party after winning the Virginia governor's race Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, at Sheraton Premiere Hotel in Tysons Corner, Va.
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The tale in Virginia – as told by the advertisements – was simple: Ladies, Ken Cuccinelli is going to threaten your right to make choices about your own body. So don't sit out, don't stay home – especially if you are young, Hispanic or black.

And the proof is in the pudding.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe was able to overcome a shady businessman reputation, a general lack of charisma and widespread voter apathy to beat his Republican opponent in large part because his campaign keyed in on unmarried women voters and it worked.

"McAuliffe effectively portrayed himself as a champion of women's concerns like the economy and education while branding his opponent Mr. Cuccinelli as extreme and disrespectful of a woman's right to make decisions about her own body," says Donna Brazile, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. "McAuliffe's gender gap was evident in the strong support he received from young women as well as minority women."

[READ: Terry McAuliffe Beats Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia Governor's Race]

 

Keith Nahigian, a Republican consultant who served as Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign manager, says he's never seen a campaign run ads largely targeting young, single women.

"It's odd - you're going after single women about their sexual activity," he says. "There weren't any ads about seniors, or married women, or men. It was all about single women and their reproductive rights. I thought the whole things was weird, to kind of go and scare one group like that."

But Jennifer Lawless, a government professor and director of American University's Women and Politics Institute, says Cuccinelli and McAuliffe each made a gamble that could have paid off.

"With McAuliffe, I think that what we saw was a confluence of the reproductive rights issues and just a general invasion of privacy concern, those two issues being used to mobilize single women in northern Virginia, which is what we also saw in the 2012 exit polls for the presidential election," she says. Lawless adds Cuccinelli's gamble was also on playing to his base - a tactic that nearly paid off.

"Cuccinelli thought that with those positions he could potentially mobilize and win enough people outside of northern Virginia that it would be enough to win the race and he came very close," she says.

Exit polls showed McAuliffe won unmarried woman with 67 percent support to Cuccinelli's 25 percent. That alone might not have been enough to make a difference in the narrow race, but because such voters turned out in a number on par with the inflated presidential years, it pushed McAuliffe to victory.

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Turnout was indeed the X factor in Virginia. Traditionally, Democratic base voters – women and minorities – are only mobilized in presidential elections. Off-year elections, such as this year's Virginia governor's race, are generally dominated by older, white voters. But McAuliffe's campaign, which outraised Cuccinelli's $34 million to $18 million, had plenty of money to spend and flooded the airwaves with advertisements pounding Cuccinelli over his support for a measure that would have required a physically-invasive ultrasound before a woman could get an abortion.

"Groups of women who traditionally stay home in off-year elections came out in presidential numbers resulting in a win for the Democrats," says Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for Emily's List. "And we know what happens when women voters hear that a candidate is against equal pay and for forced ultrasounds. They tend to support that candidate's opponent."

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