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.
“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.
SEE ALSO: Sebelius apologizes, but says Obamacare delay is not an option
“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.
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.
COVERAGE: Health Care Reform
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.
Democrats downplayed the role of Obamacare in the race, arguing that Mr. McAuliffe’s internal campaign polling consistently showed him with a lead of only 2 to 4 percentage points. He won by 2.5 percentage points after trailing in the vote counts for much of Tuesday evening.
But Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell said Republicans’ internal polling reflected what the public polling showed: The governor’s race narrowed as Obamacare increasingly became the focus of the campaign.
“The government shutdown really hurt, not just our candidates but the statewide candidates,” Mr. Howell said. “And then when that went away and people started to focus on the Affordable Care Act and the problems with that, we saw the polling close again.”
Exit polling showed that 41 percent of Virginians “strongly opposed” the health care law and only 27 percent “strongly supported” it. Of voters who said health care was the most important issue in their decision-making, Mr. Cuccinelli topped Mr. McAuliffe 49 percent to 45 percent.
The biggest hurdle for the outspokenly conservative Mr. Cuccinelli was social issues. A large chunk of voters said the abortion issue was their chief concern. Mr. McAuliffe overwhelmingly won those voters, 59 percent to 34 percent.
‘War on women’?
That showing will give ammunition to Democrats who say their party should continue to accuse Republicans of a “war on women” — a message that helped Mr. Obama win re-election last year over Republican Mitt Romney, who opposed abortion.
In New Jersey, the polling on Obamacare was a little closer, with 34 percent strongly opposed to the law and 23 percent strongly supporting it.
Erick Erickson, editor of the RedState blog, said Republicans of all stripes should pay attention to “how quickly the polling gap closed once Cuccinelli turned the race into a referendum on Obamacare” and how the tactic nearly overcame Mr. McAuliffe’s strategy of turning women against the Republican.
“Obamacare continues to be a millstone around the Democrats’ neck,” he said. “McAuliffe tried to mobilize his whole base with a ‘war on women’ strategy and nearly lost once Cuccinelli attacked Obamacare head-on. The war on women got trumped at the end by Obamacare.”
But Mr. Davis cautioned that Republicans shouldn’t campaign only on Obamacare. He said the GOP lost the governorship in Virginia because of deep divisions between the tea party movement and traditional, business-oriented interests. It was the first time in nine gubernatorial elections in the Old Dominion, he noted, when the party in control of the presidency won the governorship in Richmond.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why didn’t we win?’” Mr. Davis said. “The question isn’t, ‘Why is it close?’ We should have won this thing going away. And the answer is, if we don’t stay united as a party, we lose.”
“When you put up a hard-right ticket, you had a lot of people take their money elsewhere, take their votes elsewhere,” he said. “You also had the national party pulling out of the race three weeks early. The issue is us. We’ve just got to learn to play with each other. That did not happen in this race.”
Mr. Howell said he is willing to bet that Mr. McAuliffe “was having second thoughts” about bringing in Mr. Obama to campaign with him Sunday because of the unpopularity of Obamacare.
“I think it’s going to continue to be a lingering issue,” Mr. Howell said. “It isn’t just a glitch in the computers. It’s going to anger an awful lot of people, and I think we’re just seeing the beginning of it.”