What the Virginia Governor's Race Says About the State of American Politics

The repellent campaign for Virginia governor suggests a wider trend of political polarization in American politics.

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Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, shown here on Sept. 5 in Richmond, Va., has a lead over Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, two new polls show.
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, shown here on Sept. 5 in Richmond, Va., has a lead over Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, two new polls show.

Viewing the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial contest from my new home in Washington, I've been oddly grateful for one fact: as a resident of the District of Columbia, I'm not eligible to vote in the election between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

As an engaged citizen, this is a completely foreign sentiment. For while there have been past instances where I've been dissatisfied with the choices on my ballot – having lived in five states, I've witnessed plenteous candidates and initiative campaigns – I've never felt as though my vote would send a message that would involve sanctioning the worst of politics.

What do I mean by the worst?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Negative ads aired ad infinitum – and as the Kantar Media/CMAG data reveal, this is not a case of perception crowding out reality; campaigns premised on character assaults, evasive rhetoric and scare tactics designed to elicit division and fear among specific voter groups. As the Washington Post explained in relation to their latest poll, showing McAuliffe ahead, female voters “prefer McAuliffe by a 24-point margin over Cuccinelli ... McAuliffe's strength among women is probably due in part to an intense campaign to portray Cuccinelli as a threat to women and the issues they care about most deeply.” And worse, nearly all of these activities are being funded by groups and individuals from outside of Virginia.

Why has this race devolved into something so utterly repellent? As much as pundits would like to blame the candidates and their campaigns for this deplorable contest, it isn't simply a function of their individual personalities or their political operatives.

It's also about the partisan polarization and near parity between the parties in the country; the shifting demographics and the newly competitive landscape in the Commonwealth; and the 2016 presidential contest and the political control of an important battleground state. In short, it's about the state of the nation's politics. Virginia is America in microcosm. These candidates and their campaigns came from somewhere and that somewhere is us.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Tonight, the candidates are meeting for their second debate. Even though it seems unlikely that either nominee will pull their punches – McAuliffe's looking for a knock-out, whereas Cuccinelli's hoping to connect – Virginians have a tactic at their disposal that may leave both candidates on the mat: declare neither the winner and deride all the attacks.

In sum, if you want the politicians to start compromising and stop grandstanding, then you have to stop falling for the manufactured partisan fights. This is as true with Republican Sen.Ted Cruz's non-filibuster, talk-fest antics, as it is with President Obama's blame-everything-that's-bad-on-Republican-obstruction strategy.

Consider this: You may do more to change our nation's politics by rejecting the hype that how Virginia goes, so goes the country. Let's make the Commonwealth's gubernatorial contest an example of what turns off good citizens, not what turns on good partisans.

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