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What the Race for Virginia Governor Does (and Doesn't) Mean

May 31, 2013 | Updated Jul 31, 2013
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Ken Cuccinelli, the person I'm supporting for governor of Virginia -- my home state and locus of what's likely to be the most watched political race of 2013 -- probably isn't the very best candidate the GOP could have picked. He has said some said some foolish things about gay people and climate change and places a greater emphasis on abortion than is probably wise in the mostly pro-choice electorally crucial Washington, D.C. suburbs (I'm pro-life myself).

But he's a conservative and so am I. On 90 percent of issues, my opinions mirror his. But, in the end my views and, indeed, even Cuccinelli's own don't much matter much. He will likely be Virginia's next governor because of the quirks of America's electoral calendar. His highly likely victory won't be a real win for Republicans but his defeat would show serious weaknesses in the Republican Party and problems for it nationally.

Let's review the facts. A few months before it takes place, Virginia's governors race almost always appears at least moderately competitive since the state constitution doesn't allow incumbents to run for reelection. As Virginia is a swing state in presidential elections and the home to many of the politicians and journalists who work in Washington, D.C., it's a much-watched race in a year with few other major elections.

But the apparent competition is misleading. Ever since Virginia ended its one-party Democratic system in the 1960s, only one person of the same party as the President then in the White House has served as governor. And the elections for governor aren't always even that close in this supposed swing state. In 2009, after Obama became the first Democrat to win the state in a generation, current incumbent governor Bob McDonnell got almost 59 percent of the vote against Democrat Creigh Deeds.

Ultimately, Virginia's proximity to Washington, D.C., decision to hold its elections for governor in presidential off-years, and unique one-term-at-a-time system create several big advantages for the party out of the White House.

First, big money donors from the party that has just lost the White House will always be more generous, energized, and engaged than those who just won. The same goes for committed party activists: after they feel a crushing defeat nationally, they want a win somewhere and Virginia is the logical place.

Finally, winninga presidential campaign will land Washington, D.C. jobs for many of the winning party's top campaign staffers. Those who worked for the loser will often be looking for other employment and will often find it in Virginia. Put together, these factors create a big advantage for the Virginia gubernatorial candidate whose party loses the White House.

So far, Cuccinelli seems to be running a sensible enough campaign that emphasizes his work fighting violence against women and other issues with a real appeal to the political center. Despite the political left's efforts to brand him as an extremist, his positions on social issues differ little if at all from those of vastly more popular incumbent McDonnell. But, honestly, very little of this matters: so long as he doesn't do anything terrifically unwise, the electoral calendar and nature of the state give Cuccinelli huge advantages in November 2013.

If he somehow manages to lose the election anyway, it's a huge problem for Republicans because it will indicate that Virginia as a whole is tilting towards the Democratic column in general. Few electoral maps allow Republicans to win the White House while losing in Virginia. For example, a Republican who wins every state Mitt Romney carried plus Ohio and Florida would still lose the electoral vote without Virginia.

A Republican victory in Virginia is likely in November. Anything else, indeed, will indicate big problems for the party on a national level.