The two top candidates for Virginia governor are focusing the bulk of their efforts on trying to get core Democrats and Republicans to turn out and vote, an unusual strategy for both in a state where contests have long been dominated by cautious appeals to the middle.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli II and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are running parallel scavenger hunts for Virginians inclined to their side but not yet certain to show up on Election Day.
Both are trying to mimic the methodology of President Obama, whose highly technical field operations last year and in 2008 drew unprecedented numbers of Virginia voters. Both are lobbing relentless attacks at the other designed primarily to stoke their own sides. And as they prepare this Labor Day weekend to enter the last, frenzied stretch of the nation’s premier political contest of 2013, both think that in this low-turnout election, the winner will be the candidate best able to motivate his base.
By one measure, the task is harder for McAuliffe in an off-year election when fewer of the young and minority voters who helped propel Obama to historic victories in Virginia typically come to the polls.
But by another, the disadvantage falls to Cuccinelli, whose party has some catching up to do when it comes to compiling the sophisticated files of voter information that powered Obama's data-driven win last year.
Either way, the vote hunt is ongoing. On a recent evening in the small basement office of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, Bob Mack and his team of McAuliffe volunteers crafted a plan for the nine weeks remaining until Election Day: focus on known Democratic voters — and get them to the polls.
A 53-year-old Alexandria resident who works for a health-care billing firm, Mack is one of McAuliffe’s 150 neighborhood team leaders. He also was a team leader for Obama in 2012. And he sees a dynamic now similar to August 2012, of voters “not being really engaged just yet. It’s something about the fall, maybe it’s in the air. But as soon as that hits, it does sort of change things.”
When the time comes, Mack and his team will be ready, he said. “The lists, the way they’re designed right now, are of likely Democratic voters who need a little encouragement to get out.” If there’s one thing McAuliffe’s campaign understands, he added, it’s the importance of proper targeting.
Thirty miles west, in Sterling, volunteers for Cuccinelli hopped from driveway to driveway late Friday, targeting Republicans likely to vote.
The first door to open for Christy Sharn, 43, and Brooks Ward, 17, belonged to Marina Blair, a stay-at-home mother who identified herself as a conservative and practically apologized for not having campaign signs on her lawn.
Across the street, Ray and Joan Blankenship were about to climb into their car when Sharn and Ward approached their driveway and politely asked if they could pose a few questions.
“We have some conservative and liberal views,” Joan Blankenship replied, before both explained why she has moved away from the GOP and he still favors Republicans.
The hallmark of the governor’s race this year might be that neither of its headliners is especially popular with voters or expected to draw big numbers of voters to the polls Nov. 5.
A Quinnipiac University survey released recently made clear both candidates’ challenges. The poll found that 34 percent of likely voters viewed McAuliffe favorably, 33 percent unfavorably and 31 percent didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Cuccinelli’s appeal was dimmer: His rating was 35 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable, with 22 percent unsure.
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic Party and a close friend of Bill Clinton’s, has been mired in partisan battles and accusations of mingling business with politics for much of his public life. Cuccinelli, an ardent conservative and hero of Virginia’s tea party movement, is struggling to win over the moderates who propelled the commonwealth to the blue column in the past two presidential elections.
Looming over the race, too, is the criminal investigation related to the current governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), including a grand jury probe involving his family’s acceptance of gifts from a wealthy Richmond area businessman. And as always, the race is being watched nationally as a bellwether for both parties’ fortunes in next year’s congressional midterm elections.
For those voters who still need persuading, McAuliffe sells himself as a pragmatic businessman better suited to an increasingly moderate state than an extremist foe who as attorney general has investigated climate change research at the University of Virginia and supported “personhood” legislation that some think would outlaw certain forms of contraception.