For much of the summer, Democrats and Republicans resisted elevating the Virginia governor race into a national political debate over the direction in which the country is headed, much like they did with the race four years ago. But that appears to be changing.
The Democratic Governors Association sent out a fundraising email earlier this week insisting that “As goes Virginia, so goes the nation" and that winning the governor's mansion in the Old Dominion could set the tone in next year's congressional elections.
"When Tim Kaine won the Virginia governor's race in 2005, it set the stage for big Democratic gains in the House and Senate the following year and then for President Obama's historic election in 2008," the governors said in their fundraising pitch. "But following 2009, when Republican Bob McDonnell won Virginia, Republicans took back the House and nearly won the Senate."
Big name politicians have avoided spending too much time in the state pitching for either gubernatorial candidate, a stark contrast to 2009 when both parties sent in their power players to sway voters. But there are a lot of reasons not to turn Virginia into a national barometer this year.
For one, unlike 2005, when then-President George W. Bush was an unpopular leader, or in 2009, when there was a voter backlash against President Obama and the Democrats who controlled Congress, voters have a pretty negative opinion of both parties right now. There's also a question of whether Republicans and Democrats want to anoint Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party firebrand, or Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a major political fundraiser, as their party's standard bearer heading into the 2014 elections.
Virginia, too, has a fickle political history and almost always votes against the sitting president's party in its off-year gubernatorial elections.
Until now, the Virginia race — the only competitive governor's race in the country this year — was widely seen as a tossup. However, many political prognosticators and most polls show voters leaning toward McAuliffe with Election Day a little over a month away.
As McAuliffe pulls away and threatens to wrest the governor's office from Republican hands, Democrats are seeing the race as a potential boost for the party nationwide. They also are looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race, when Virginia is once again expected to be up for grabs. Quietly, some Democrats have seen McAuliffe's campaign as a dry run for a potential Hillary Clinton candidacy in a few years, considering how many former Clinton insiders are close to the McAuliffe operation.
"I’m telling you: The last thing you want to do is look back after 2016 with a right-wing Republican in the White House and say, 'If only I would have done a little more,' " the email said.
The governors' organization labels Cuccinelli as a "Tea Partier" in its fund-raising letter, but they don't even mention McAuliffe's name, an indication that Democrats are less interested in making McAuliffe their party's standard bearer than they are in making Cuccinelli a poster child for the Republican Party that they plan to portray as extremists in next year's election.