Obamacare an effective GOP weapon in Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign

Democrats spent heavily to win Virginia’s governorship, but Republicans said Wednesday that the closer-than-expected loss by state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II provided a clear demonstration of how they can exploit the unpopularity of Obamacare next year to win the congressional midterm elections.

Although Obamacare’s disastrous rollout dominated news cycles for much of October, Mr. Cuccinelli didn’t campaign hard on the issue until the final days of his race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Some analysts credited the belated tactic with helping Mr. Cuccinelli close what had been a double-digit gap in two recent polls to a final loss of just 2.5 percentage points, despite being outspent by the Democrat by $15 million.

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“If we had had five more days, or 5 million more dollars, we would have won,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist in Virginia who predicted that candidates in the next two national elections will study the results closely. “Obamacare is toxic. Democratic senators up in either 2014 or 2016 are probably terrified at what happened in Virginia.”

Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, agreed that Mr. Cuccinelli’s late focus on Obamacare tightened the race.

“It certainly helped at the end to narrow the margin,” Mr. Davis said. “The rollout of Obamacare certainly brought people back to Cuccinelli.”

Democrats, however, gleefully predicted that an Obamacare focus would backfire by worsening the Republican rift with the tea party movement.

“Ken Cuccinelli made this race in Virginia a referendum on Obamacare,” said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Democrats made it a referendum on the tea party’s extremism and the government shutdown. We won.”

As the focus shifted from the off-year governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey to the battle for control of Congress in 2014, President Obama flew to Dallas late Wednesday to attend two big-ticket fundraisers for Democratic Senate candidates. His special guest on Air Force One was Sen. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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Republicans need to pick up a net of six seats next year to retake control of the Senate. In the House, Democrats would need to gain 17 seats to achieve Mr. Obama’s goal of putting California’s Nancy Pelosi back in the speaker’s chair.

Democrats on Wednesday pointed to another House Republican’s retirement, that of two-term Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey, as evidence that the GOP is in disarray. Mr. Runyan said he wanted to spend more time with his children, but he also expressed unhappiness with conservatives’ delay of aid to his district after Superstorm Sandy and with Republicans’ support of the partial federal government shutdown last month.

He is the 14th House Republican to decide against a re-election bid next year. No House Democrat has announced a plan to retire.

“Congressman Jon Runyan saw the writing on the wall in the Virginia governor’s race: Swing voters want no part of the reckless and irresponsible agenda that House Republicans have been pushing for years,” said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Analyzing Virginia

Both parties were analyzing the election results in Virginia more closely than in New Jersey as a barometer, in part because the landslide re-election of Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey is viewed as a triumph of his personality that doesn’t translate well to midterm races.

At the end of the government shutdown in mid-October, Mr. McAuliffe held leads of as much as 17 percentage points in polls. When the shutdown ended, Mr. Cuccinelli and national Republican figures argued that Virginia’s election was a referendum on Obamacare — and the polls began to tighten.

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