Democrat Terry McAuliffe has vaulted into the lead over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II in a Virginia governor’s race that has left many voters sour on both candidates, according to a new Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll.
McAuliffe leads 47 percent to 39 percent among likely voters, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis’s 10 percent suggesting an unrest among voters not satisfied with either major-party contender. In a one-on-one matchup without Sarvis in the mix, the poll shows a narrower, 49-to-44-percent race between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli among likely voters — but still flips Cuccinelli’s 10-point lead from this spring.
The shift in the race has come almost exclusively from female voters, who prefer McAuliffe by a 24-point margin over Cuccinelli. The candidates were effectively tied among women in a Washington Post poll in May.
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. A new McAuliffe ad, for instance, features a Norfolk OB-GYN speaking directly to the camera about how she is “offended” by Cuccinelli’s position on abortion.
The challenge for Cuccinelli is stark: Nearly half of all voters view him unfavorably, and they trust his opponent as much as or more than the Republican on every major issue in the race, according to the poll. On trust to handle issues of special concern to women, McAuliffe leads Cuccinelli by 23 points.
“I really disagree with Cuccinelli’s politics, especially his antiabortion stance,” said Gina Gabelia, 32, who lives in Ashburn and works at a nonprofit group.
As for McAuliffe, Gabelia said: “His advertisements make him sound like a stand-up guy, but who knows? . . . He has a good campaign manager.”
Cuccinelli has accused McAuliffe and other Democrats of waging a war on coal and working-class Virginians, but he trails by nine points among voters who were asked whom they trust more on energy and the environment. He has burnished his reputation among conservatives by opposing President Obama’s health-care law, but voters favor McAuliffe by eight points when it comes to health care. Cuccinelli does best when it comes to transportation and the economy and jobs; he is tied with McAuliffe on those issues.
The poll also found voters effectively split between candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, meaning that Democrats have a chance to sweep all three statewide offices this year for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. A McAuliffe victory would also buck a four-
decade Virginia tradition of electing a governor from the party that doesn’t occupy the White House.
Republicans, however, have an immediate opportunity to reverse the momentum on Wednesday, when Cuccinelli and McAuliffe will appear in a televised debate hosted by the influential Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. The debate will be important for McAuliffe, too, who lost a high-profile endorsement to another Northern Virginia business group earlier this month amid perceptions that he was not sufficiently serious or detail-oriented.
McAuliffe faces his own challenges, according to the poll, which shows that both candidates have been marred by scandal. Roughly one-third of voters say they are less likely to vote for Cuccinelli as a result of his connection to the gifts scandal that has engulfed the man he hopes to succeed, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). Cuccinelli was touched by the scandal because he accepted $18,000 in gifts from the Richmond-area businessman who lavished far more than that on the McDonnell family; the attorney general donated the money to charity only this month.
Even more voters, however — 40 percent — say they are less likely to vote for McAuliffe as a result of the federal investigation of GreenTech, the electric car company he co-founded.
The numbers suggest that the scandals have impeded both campaigns from offering an ethical contrast with the other side.
Both candidates show room for growth in their approval ratings; Cuccinelli is viewed unfavorably by 47 percent of voters, while McAuliffe is seen that way by 36 percent.
Yet the poll contains evidence that McAuliffe’s base of support is more stable — and that he has navigated a maze of scandals and attacks more cleanly than the Republican. The Democrat is seen favorably by 48 percent of registered voters, compared with just 40 percent for Cuccinelli.
“I’m going to vote for McAuliffe, but I’m not crazy about him at all,” said Elizabeth McGowan, 63, a retired federal government worker from Springfield. “It’s the least of two evils in my book.”