Did Virginia change the GOP power structure?


Virginia is jockeying for position as the new bellwether in Presidential politics.  That’s hard to imagine given its history of reliable conservatism, but party drift and population growth around Washington has shifted the Old Dominion back to where it began:  The center of our political heart.

Republicans more than Democrats cared about the outcome of the Virginia 2013 Gubernatorial race.  The Tea Party had their best chance yet to prove their populist appeal and win a swing state election with an underlying Republican advantage, against a less than appealing Democratic candidate, while the nation was watching.  For many establishment Republicans, the guys that pay the bills and generally want to win elections in return, it was a chance to bury the Tea Party and weaken them in front of the 2014 primary season.

Virginia Elections

Virginia’s slide to the left has happened so quickly is has affected individual candidates.  In a state with a one-year term limit for the chief executive and where former governors tend to run for the Senate, candidate such as Allen, Gilmore, and Mark Warner have all had their fortunes changed by the Democratic curve (Some, like Allen, had help from themselves).  The trend is best represented in Presidential margin of victory, where Virginia has moved from R+10 versus the national average to even in less than 20 years.  It is for this reason that many predicted a wave election in the 2010 midterms after Gov. McDonnell bested Mr. Deeds in 2009 by 17 points.

Bellwether All Virginia statewide elections since 92

The story has to be more complicated than that, and it is.  Unlike Presidential elections, that are smoothed by consistently “high” turnout and relatively mainstream and vetted candidates, Gubernatorial and midterm elections are noisy, and even though a democratic trend is still apparent, it’s hard to draw many conclusions from these data taken together.   Conversely, VA Gubernatorial races are remarkably consistent, marked by turnout predictably in the high 30s and a cynical voting pattern that punishes the party of the sitting president.  The question is, can we use these data to predict how well McAuffile and more importantly Cuccinelli did against the curve?

Throwing the party out with the tea.

From 1993 to 2009 there were five Virginia Gubernatorial elections of which all 5 were won by the party opposite the President.  This trend actually stretches back to 1977, but the party ID in the south was very different before 1992, so it’s probably more appropriate to restrict our analysis to the last 20 years.  On average, there was a 15 point swing away from the party that won the presidency the year before.  This almost certainly reflects a galvanizing of opposition voter turnout, rather than 15 percent of Virginia changing their political mind in only a year.  Using this trend we can predict how the average Democrat would perform against an unnamed Republican in 2013:  +3.9 (Obama 2012) – 15.0 = -11.1 (+/- 4.9 SDV)

This suggests an 11 percent (or at least a 6 %) advantage to Cuccinelli if he brings nothing to the table but the color of his tie.  Unfortunately for Cuccinelli, he also brought himself.  The other side of the coin would be that McAuliffe was an exceptional candidate, but it’s a hard argument to make for a Clinton-era money-raising pit bull who once said he felt frustrated that he had to stop fundraising because of 9/11.

Gov races

Maybe this analysis is all contrived and McDonnell’s blowout in 2009 an outlier, one last conservative convulsion before Virginia comes out of the liberal closet.  But I think it’s far more likely that Virginia rejected Cuccinelli for being too conservative, too eager to grandstand, and not the diligent administrator Virginians tend to prefer; however, perhaps not by enough to convince all Republicans that moderation is the road to victory, especially the wing of the party that is not entirely in love with reasoned arguments.

The answer to the question asked at the beginning, of whether Virginia changed the political climate of the GOP, is most likely no.  The Tea Party managed to win the expectations game, barely losing to the unstoppable Clinton political machine, in their minds, and for the most part that is how it was reported.  But the reality is Cuccinelli underperformed.

Impact on 2016.

In case you missed Gov. Christie’s speech, the race for the White House is already in 2nd gear.  The perceived mixed outcome in Virginia may push establishment Republicans to rally around a consensus candidate sooner rather than later.  Say, spring or early summer 2015.  The 2016 nominations will be open on both sides, leading to a highly unpredictable race, a fluid electoral map, and candidates that will be announcing their intent to run far earlier than the 2012 calendar of events.  But there’s a bit of time ahead to talk 2016, back to hibernation for now.