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Larry Sabato: 'Red alert' in Virginia governor's race

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

The upcoming Virginia and Maryland gubernatorial races have edged on to University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato's "red alert" list due to the possibility that the parties currently in power could get the boot.

The hottest race, he found, is in Virginia this year where Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli are locked in a tie. Sabato said moderate Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, snubbed by his party, could "siphon off lots of suburban swing voters from McAuliffe."

Maryland's 2014 race got a "yellow alert," with Sabato warning that as current Gov. Martin O'Malley eyeballing a 2016 presidential run, "he wouldn't want the embarrassment of seeing his office fall into Republican hands."

From his latest Crystal Ball analysis:

Maryland: As Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) looks ahead to a 2016 presidential run, he wouldn't want the embarrassment of seeing his office fall into Republican hands (even though the only ones likely to care are political hacks and flacks). Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) is his chosen successor, although it's interesting that none of the Old Line State's lieutenant governors have ever been elected governor. OK, it's a relatively new position, and only seven people have held it since its modern creation in 1970. Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) will be a formidable foe for Brown, and state Delegate Heather Mizeur (D) and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) are also possibilities; state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) decided against a run. A Republican upset is "doable, but difficult," in the words of outgoing party Chairman Alex Mooney, and there are several potential candidates eying the race. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

Virginia (2013): The marquee gubernatorial race of the 2013 cycle is in the Old Dominion. But there won't be any primary drama here: Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) will be unopposed at the GOP state convention and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (D) has no opponent in the Democratic primary. The real drama in this race at the moment concerns Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R). When the state GOP decided to determine the 2013 ballot slate at a convention rather than through a primary (essentially handing Cuccinelli the nomination), Bolling ended his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. However, dissatisfaction among business Republicans and political moderates with candidates who can be easily pigeonholed as the "ideologue" (Cuccinelli) and the "party hack" (McAuliffe) has opened the door to a possible third-party run by Bolling. With Virginia's loose campaign finance rules (no contribution limits), it might only take a few financial "angels" to commit the kind of dough Bolling will need to make a credible run. Bolling is expected to announce his intentions on March 14. Historically, Virginia has not been especially kind to third-party candidates, with some notable exceptions 40 years ago, such as Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., who was elected twice as an independent in 1970 and 1976. The last time a pure third-party candidate won more than 10% of the vote in a Virginia gubernatorial election was in 1965, when Conservative Party candidate William Story received 13%, finishing third behind Linwood Holton (R) and winner Mills Godwin (D). An independent, liberal Henry Howell, came close to being governor in 1973 as the de facto Democratic nominee, losing by just 15,000 votes out of over a million cast -- but that was a very strange election held in the midst of Watergate and party realignment. More recently, the 1994 U.S. Senate race in the Old Dominion saw independent ex-Republican J. Marshall Coleman win 11% of the vote, helping incumbent Sen. Charles Robb (D) survive a challenge from controversial fire-breather Oliver North (R). Could a Bolling candidacy track more closely to Byrd and Howell than Story and Coleman? That remains to be seen. In early January, PPP found Bolling at 15% while the latest Quinnipiac poll has him at only 13%. Neither of these figures bodes well for Bolling -- at least initially. But Cuccinelli and McAuliffe may be sufficiently unpalatable to large segments of the Virginia electorate to give Bolling a fighting chance. It's also unclear which party nominee Bolling's candidacy would hurt more. At first blush, one would expect a long-time Republican elected official like Bolling to damage Cuccinelli, but it's also possible that Bolling -- who has been taking very moderate stands on major controversies -- would siphon off lots of suburban swing voters from McAuliffe. Particularly if Bolling runs, this contest will have something for everybody, but at the moment the only rational rating is TOSS-UP.