How to Lose a Purple State

Republican Ken Cuccinelli demonstrates how to lose the Virginia governor's race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

By + More

Virginia, the commonwealth situated to the west and south of the District of Columbia, has something of a contrarian streak when it comes to electing its governors. The last nine times that Virginia voters selected a new governor, they went against the party in the White House. So during the Clinton years, the Old Dominion elected Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore; during the George W. Bush years, they voted for Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. And four years ago, with Barack Obama living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they tapped Republican Bob McDonnell.

Barring an unforeseen cataclysm, they will break that streak, and decisively. With less than two weeks before Election Day, polls show Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli, the commonwealth's attorney general, fading against Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. Yes, that Terry McAuliffe – the Beltway hack Clinton fundraiser whose inescapable grinning visage during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries conjured up memories of Cesar Romero's Joker from the 1960s series, "Batman."

At a time when Virginia has ascended to the ranks of the critical swing states – it went for Obama in 2008 and 2012 after voting for the GOP candidate the 10 previous elections in a row – the problems facing the state's Republican Party mirror those of the national party. "What's happened is a microcosm nationally," says Tom Davis, a Republican former member of Congress who now lobbies for Deloitte. "We took a red state, turned it into a purple state and are turning it into a Democratic rout."

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

This is a problem with which Davis is intimately familiar and has long foreseen. A moderate Republican – he now heads the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership – with an encyclopedic knowledge of congressional districts and the political landscape both nationally and in Virginia, he has been chastised by the hard right as a "RINO" (that's movement conservative for "Republican In Name Only") as he has warned that the party has become too beholden to its extremes. "I hate to say, the day of reckoning is here," he says. "I hope we use this as a learning moment."

The day of reckoning indeed. The Virginia governor's race is a perfect illustration of what happens when a party's crank wing – in the GOP's case the tea party zealots currently running the show – gets too much power. Start with the candidate: Cuccinelli has earned a reputation as a tea party darling and conservative crusader. He was the first attorney general to file suit against Obamacare and a vocal opponent of a path to citizenship in immigration ("I no longer consider [George W. Bush] the head of my Republican Party," he wrote back in 2007 when that president tried to pass an immigration reform bill). He has supported a "personhood" bill which would declare that life begins at fertilization (making all abortions murder and possibly illegalizing some forms of birth control) and has declared the Environmental Protection Agency an "agency of mass destruction."

And voters have noticed. A Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll released yesterday found that 54 percent of likely voters believe Kuccinelli is too conservative. Similarly a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that 51 percent of likely Virginia voters believe Cuccinelli to be "too conservative" to be governor. "Enough Virginians decided that Ken Cuccinelli is an unacceptable choice to be governor, and Terry McAuliffe is just the lucky bloke facing off against him," says Geoffrey Skelley from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

As if to drive home Cuccinelli's right wing bona fides, the party – working through a convention instead of a primary process, thus guaranteeing a more conservative slate – nominated a candidate for lieutenant governor who is arguably even further out there. (He's said that Planned Parenthood has been worse for blacks than the Ku Klux Klan and that gays are "very sick people.")