Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly won the Virginia governorship Tuesday night, defeating Republican Ken Cuccinelli and bucking a trend of Virginia voters since 1976 electing a governor of the opposite political party the year after a president’s election.
McAuliffe’s victory also marks the first time since Reconstruction that a political party has held Virginia’s governorship for only one term.
Democrat Ralph S. Northam easily defeated Republican E.W. Jackson in the race for lieutenant governor.
The contest for attorney general was tight at press time, with Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg narrowly leading Sen. Mark Herring, a Democrat from Loudoun. The contest appears headed for a recount.
Defined by millions in negative ads and polls that reflected deep voter dissatisfaction with their choices, the closely watched election was buffeted by national dynamics and viewed by some as a bellwether for the 2014 congressional midterms and possibly the 2016 presidential contest.
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McAuliffe, at a Democratic victory celebration in Tysons Corner, sounded a theme of bipartisanship on Tuesday night, saying that much of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address was devoted to “bridging the partisan divide.”
McAuliffe pledged to make Virginia “a model” for pragmatic leadership, good schools, efficient transportation and bipartisan cooperation.
“The truth is that this election was never a choice between Democrats and Republicans,” said McAuliffe, a businessman from McLean and a former Democratic National Committee chairman who lost a bid for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2009.
“It was a choice between whether Virginia would continue the mainstream bipartisan tradition that has served us so well over the last decade.”
Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general and a former two-term state senator who lives in Prince William County, conceded the race at a gathering in Richmond.
“I’m obviously disappointed by tonight’s outcome,” he said at the Richmond Marriott. “But I am proud that we ran on our principles, and serious ideas based on those principles.”
He kept a focus on the federal health care law, telling the audience that despite being outspent by $15 million, “this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare.”
As expected, Libertarian Robert C. Sarvis finished third in the balloting. Sarvis, who ran his campaign on a shoestring, sought to achieve the 10 percent threshold that would give Libertarians automatic placement on future ballots. Polls showed many voters turning to Sarvis as an alternative — a dynamic that some suggested adversely affected Cuccinelli’s chances.
Sarvis, in an election night gathering at The Tobacco Company in Richmond, said that because of his candidacy, there are a lot more people who appreciate the Libertarian message “and understand we offer a real alternative.”
For those who didn’t vote for Sarvis because they didn’t think he had a chance of winning, he said: “If all of them had voted for me, I would have won in a landslide.”
McAuliffe easily secured the party’s nomination this year after his failed bid in 2009. He lost that year to Creigh Deeds, who was thumped by Gov. Bob McDonnell. This year, McDonnell’s entanglement in a gifts scandal kept him off the campaign trail and created a cloud that hung over the race.
Cuccinelli was unopposed for his nomination after he engineered a change in the GOP nominating process from a primary to a convention. The maneuver effectively forced Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, favored by establishment Republicans, out of the race and created a rift in the party.
The campaign that followed was negative from the start, and voters appeared to quickly sour on the contest, an off-year election that traditionally sees lower turnout.
Only 40 percent of voters went to the polls in 2009. Tuesday’s results appeared to show a similar figure.
Polls showed that more voters viewed both candidates unfavorably than favorably. One poll showed that nearly two-thirds of McAuliffe’s supporters sided with him because they opposed Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe sought to portray Cuccinelli, a social conservative and tea party favorite, as out of the mainstream of Virginia voters. He highlighted Cuccinelli’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage, as well as the legal battles he waged against the Affordable Care Act and the research of a former University of Virginia professor on climate change.
On Tuesday, McAuliffe called Cuccinelli “a principled man” and thanked him for his “service and dedication to the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Cuccinelli had tried to paint McAuliffe as an ethically challenged Beltway insider, who made millions off of political connections. He charged that the Democrat did not have a grasp on governing or the willingness to undertake the office with the seriousness it requires.
“All puppies and no plans,” became a common refrain of Cuccinelli’s in the closing days of the campaign.
As the campaign entered its final stretch, both sides seized on federal issues that colored the campaign as they paraded the state with national surrogates. Cuccinelli and Republicans blasted McAuliffe for the Democrat’s support of Medicaid expansion under the federal health care act, and McAuliffe sought to link Cuccinelli to the partial government shutdown.
The White House threw its full political weight behind McAuliffe, with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stumping for the Democrat. Former President Bill Clinton made a four-day swing through Virginia with McAuliffe. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned and raised money for the chairman of her 2008 presidential primary bid.
Cuccinelli brought in surrogates with strong conservative credentials, such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
The Republican was hampered by the ongoing Star Scientific gift scandal that engulfed McDonnell, effectively removing a powerful partisan advocate and fundraiser in the commonwealth.
Cuccinelli was also dogged by criticism stemming from his decision to stay in office while running for governor and for his own involvement with the wealthy donor who showered the first family with gifts.
McAuliffe was challenged over his business dealings, including his role in GreenTech, a Mississippi electric car company he founded. The company has not met employment or production projections, and McAuliffe acknowledged in April that he had stepped down as chairman in December.
Cuccinelli’s campaign also seized on a report that McAuliffe was among hundreds of passive investors with a Rhode Island estate planner who was charged with defrauding people who are terminally ill. McAuliffe has stressed that he had no knowledge of the estate planner’s allegedly fraudulent activities.
At McAuliffe’s election night gathering in Tysons Corner, the Democratic National Committee’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, said: “Virginia is on its way to being reliably blue.”
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Staff writers Brandon Shulleeta and Markus Schmidt contributed to this report.
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