Democrats spent heavily to win the Virginia governorship Tuesday, but Republicans said by making the race far closer than polls had projected just a few weeks ago, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli’s campaign showed how much of a weapon Obamacare can be in the hands of the GOP.
In the two biggest elections of the night — the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races — neither Democratic candidate topped 50 percent. Indeed, between purple-state Virginia and deep-blue New Jersey, the Republican candidates combined for 2.2 million votes, or 400,000 more than the Democratic candidates.
The results will leave many Republicans wondering about what-ifs in Virginia, including what would have happened if the GOP in Washington hadn’t gotten caught up in a government shutdown for most of October, and if major donors had pumped a little more money into the race in the closing days.
“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 also said Tuesday’s results will be studied by candidates heading into the next two federal elections. “Obamacare is toxic. Democratic senators up in either 2014 or 2016 are probably terrified at what happened in Virginia.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s easy path to re-election underscored how well Republicans can do when they are seen as strong leaders — even when voters disagree with them on specific issues such as gay marriage or taxes. In Virginia, meanwhile, exit polling showed voters fed up with both Mr. Cuccinelli and Mr. McAuliffe, though the electorate appeared to fear the Republican more than the Democrat.
Still, the final results in Virginia were far closer than polls suggested just days ago.
At the end of the government shutdown, Mr. McAuliffe held leads of as much as 17 percentage points. But with the shutdown over, Mr. Cuccinelli and national Republican figures argued that Virginia’s election was a referendum on Obamacare — and the polls began to tighten, ending with Mr. McAuliffe’s narrow 2 percentage-point victory on Tuesday.
Exit polling showed 41 percent of Virginians “strongly oppose” the health care law, while only 27 percent “strongly support” the law. Of voters who said health care was the most important issue in their vote, Mr. Cuccinelli topped Mr. McAuliffe, 49 percent to 45 percent.
Mr. Cuccinelli’s big stumble came on social issues, with a large chunk of voters saying abortion was their chief concern, and Mr. McAuliffe overwhelmingly winning those voters, 59 percent to 34 percent.
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.
In New Jersey, the polling on Obamacare was a little closer, with 34 percent strongly opposed and 23 percent strongly supporting it.
Liberal groups said they welcomed viewing election night as a referendum on Obamacare, since Virginia did end up going Democratic in both the governor’s race and the lieutenant governor’s race.
“Advantage: Obamacare,” said Americans United for Change, a group run by the former spokesman for the national Democratic Party.
Current Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a statement that the Virginia victories showed just how badly the government shutdown hurt Republicans.
“Tonight in Virginia, we saw voters reject the extreme tea party politics that caused our government to shut down and drove our economy to the brink of collapse,” she said.
While there’s little doubt Mr. Cuccinelli turned off voters, so did Mr. McAuliffe. Exit polling showed just 52 percent said they strongly backed the man they voted for, while 17 percent said they voted for their choice because they disliked the others.
Mr. McAuliffe won half of those voters, signaling his margin of victory came not because voters were eager to see him in office, but because they were wary of Mr. Cuccinelli.
A Libertarian candidate, Robert C. Sarvis, won 6.6 percent of the vote, which was well more than the slim margin of victory for Mr. McAuliffe. Mr. Sarvis won almost all of his support from voters who simply disliked the two major-party offerings.