Republicans refuse to believe that they live in a world where Terry McAuliffe might become governor of Virginia. Terry McAuliffe! The Clinton moneyman who bragged—to Marjorie Williams, and later in his memoirs—about ditching his wife and child at the hospital to pop into a fundraiser. The "businessman" whose major venture, GreenTech, is apparently being investigated as a visa-for-scale scheme more than a maker of electric cars. The dude who showed up constantly on cable TV as a Hillary Clinton surrogate who would make bets with people over bottles of rum. That guy!
And yet, he's winning. McAuliffe has taken advantage of much higher fundraising numbers* and a flawed opponent to build a modest lead. The new Washington Post poll gives McAulliffe an 8-point advantage if Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is included in the race, and a 5-point advantage if he isn't. The new NBC poll confirms the 5-point advantage. (It's now been several months since Cuccinelli led.)
The Washington Post poll gives McAuliffe a net +12 favorable rating; Cuccinelli's favorables are underwater, -7. What mystifies Republicans is that McAuliffe, whom they consider a homunculus made of pure sleaze, trounces Cuccinelli on questions of "trustworthiness" and ethics. Voters simply know more, and worry more, about Cuccinelli's financial scandals than about McAuliffe's. And they narrowly prefer the Democrats in the downballot lieutenant governor and attorney general races, before Democrats have really gotten on the air to amplify the social conservative positions of the GOP candidates. (LG candidate E.W. Jackson is the guy who worries that Satan might fill the hearts of people who engage in meditation. For an example.)
It's by no means clear that Republicans know how to combat this. The most effective ad I've seen (in D.C., we get a decent amount of Virginia TV) comes from Citizens United; it condenses the group's documentary about McAuliffe's failing businesses and disappointed employees into a spot reminiscent of the anti-Romney spots that worked so well in 2012. More recently, I saw this spot from the new Super PAC Fight for Tomorrow. It started running on Sept. 12.
The ad speaks to the conservative frustration with Virginia—how, how, how can voters not see that McAuliffe is a Democratic sleeper agent? In a fundraising pitch, FFT asks for "$400,000-$600,000" to run the ad and promises that Virginia "can be a Gettysburg for the whole Obama-Clinton nightmare." I talked to Matt Mackowiak, the Texas-based strategist behind the PAC, who was perfectly happy blasting McAuliffe as an out-of-state interloper. (Born in Syracuse, N.Y., McAuliffe has lived in the D.C. area since the Carter administration.)
"A lot of national groups spending money from out of state," said Mackowiak. That's true: Billionaire Tom Steyer has been spending in Virginia, baiting Republicans into repeating the "war on coal" attack that did basically nothing to defeat Obama in the state last year. "This is really about the 2014–2016 cycle. It's about Hillary 2016."
Mackowiak insists that "the wheels are coming off" of the Democrats campaign, and that if the big money is countered, he'll go down. "The debate on Wednesday is shaping up to be an epic disaster," he told me.
McAuliffe and Cuccinelli have met only once before. By general acclimation, Cuccinelli got the better of McAuliffe, and plowed more easily into a press scrum afterward. If he repeats the performance, some of the Republican agita might disappate. If he blows it, the possibility of Gov. McAuliffe leading an all-Democratic statewide government, clearing the GOP bench for the rest of the decade, will start to look real.
*Since 1997, the GOP candidate for Virginia governor has been the state's elected attorney general. Typically, the AG will resign well before the election to free up time and raise more money. Cuccinelli has not resigned, compounding his disadvantage.