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Saturday evening was the annual Arlington County Democratic Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.  I am not doing as much politically this cycle, either volunteering or financially, because of my wife's illness and my forthcoming new job.  But I am a consistent supporter of the local Democratic party (which is VERY EFFECTIVE) so I attended the dinner (where I was at one of several head tables) and the VIP reception.  Gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe was only present for part of the dinner and his keynote, but AG Candidate Mark Herring and LG Candidate Ralph Northam (who sat across from me at dinner) both mingled, along with a lot of other prominent local Democrats.

You can hear the remarks all three candidates gave by clicking on this Blue Virginia post by lowkell, which has video.

I want to give my sense of where this election cycle is.  And remember - we not only have the three statewide races - which are all elected separately - we also have all 100 seats in the House of Delegates up for grabs.

And as far as the two statewide slates?  It is hard to imagine a greater contrast, either on policy or on the question of unity.

Please continue beneath the cheese-doodle.

First, the Republican ticket is about as extreme as one might conceivably manage.  Ken Cuccinelli, the gubernatorial candidate, has made his career by focusing on social issues.  While he is attempting to tone down his rhetoric for the general election, now less than 100 days away, it is hard to get away from the many extreme statements he has made, and how he has misused his current office of Attorney General to push his extreme agenda, whether it was going after the University of Virginia because he wanted to get climate scientist Michael Mann (Cooch does not believe in anthroprogenic global climate change) or attempting to shut down abortion by bullying the board that overseas clinics, to which we can add the very nasty remarks he has made about gays.  It is worth noting that while in 2006 the voters of Virginia passed a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, a majority of current Virginia voters favor marriage equality.

And yet for all his extreme positions, Cuccinelli might be the least extreme member of the ticket.  AG candidate Mark Obenshain introduced a bill that would have required women to report all miscarriages to law enforcement within 24 hours for investigative purposes.  As for LT. Gov nominee E. W. Jackson, to call him batshit crazy is to insult those who are truly batshit crazy (like Michele Bachmann) because he operates in a parallel universe.

The policies these men want to pursue had they their way would ban most forms of birth control, including the pill.  Ponder that for a moment.

They have several other problems.  

All recent previous AGs who have run for Governor have resigned their office once they had their party's nomination.  That includes successful and unsuccessful candidates, from both parties.  Cuccinelli has refused, for which he has receive some criticism.

There is a notable lack of unity in the ticket -  as crazy as he is, Cuccinelli is trying to keep his distance from Jackson (we will see the Democratic ticket is very different).

Cuccinelli is caught up in aspects of the Star Medical scandal that has also ensnared current Governor Bob McDonnell (who did resign as AG when he received the Republican gubernatorial nomination 4 years ago).

And the Republican ticket is lagging when it comes to fundraising.  At the top of the ticket, Terry McAuliffe has raise far more than Cuccinelli and has about twice the cash on hand - and he has not yet brought in his big guns, the Clintons.

Cuccinelli opposed the Governor's bi-partisan transportation plan, which has not endeared him to the business interests, who in both NoVa and Hampton Roads understand that unless we address transportation in a serious way, it is hard to bring in new business or even to keep some current businesses that might have opportunity to move elsewhere.

Many of the big contributors to McDonnell have not as yet given anything to Cuccinelli.  Some understand that his rhetoric on social issues does not play well with large employers considering where to locate.  A few, notably homebuilder Dwight Schar, are already on board with McAuliffe, in some cases with major financial support.

Some observers had thought that Cuccinelli would have an advantage in debating McAuliffe, although I am not quite sure why.  Yes, he had done very well in his state senate race, albeit against a very weak candidate whom he only beat by just over 100 votes, and against Steve Shannon in his AG race, although to some degree that was irrelevant because the gubernatorial race was so lopsided that it swamped everything.   That also ignored all the experience McAuliffe has had going on TV, often on Fox.

Cuccinelli should be very glad that not many people saw that first debate  (it was on Virginia PBS stations and was live-streamed to several thousand more) before around 3,000 lawyers at the Homestead, because Mcauliffe came across as better prepared and more knowledgeable.

I have said the Democratic ticket is unified.  That is absolutely true on issues of women's health, which I suspect may play a major role in this race.  For one thing, Virginia tends to have a libertarian streak, which does not like government telling them what they must do.  For another, the population has been changing, with NoVa having ever increasing influence, and that is an area in which even the outer counties are becoming more liberal on social issues and more blue politically.

The Democratic ticket has some geographic balance -  Ralph Northam grew up on the Eastern Shore, and you can hear it when he speaks.  He represents the Hampton Roads area now, which along with Nova and Richmond is one of the three main population centers of the Commonwealth.

But the key is likely to be the top of the ticket, and this is where things are very different than four years ago, on several counts.

First, the early polling data has all three Democrats in the lead.  There is no huge backlash against Dems as there was four years ago.  The down-ticket polling so far is of less importance, since all four candidates remain largely unknown.  What is interesting is what is happening at the top of the ticket.

Remember, Cuccinelli has run and won statewide, whereas McAuliffe lost a low-turnout Democratic primary.  Even so, note this -  over a one month period as voters in Virginia learned more about the two of them, Cuccinelli's net approval-disapproval dropped 6 points while McAuliffe's went up 6.  

Four years ago many people reacted positively when they first encountered Terry, but he did not wear well.

Four years ago he tended to come across as bombastic, and not well focused.

This year, both in the debate and in his remarks Saturday, he knew the issues, he knew how he wanted to communicate them, he could draw the crowd in to him, and he was effective.  Very effective.

While Cuccinelli is desperately trying to side-step his positions on social issues, McAuliffe is right out front, including saying directly his support for marriage equality.  He is able to tie that to bringing jobs in to Virginia, which makes it an even stronger performance.

Similarly, Terry praises Gov. McDonnell on the transportation bill, again tying it to jobs.  (By the way, numerous people, including Republicans, give McAuliffe credit for lobbying very heavily to get the transportation bill through)

He hammers on education -  Virginia has dropped to the bottom in average teacher compensation, despite being a relatively wealthy state.  He has come out against the current regimen of high stakes testing.  He notes that Virginia has under McDonnell slipped from being at the top as the best-managed state, the best place to raise a child, the best state for business, as it was under Warner and Kaine.   He ties all this to the issue of jobs, which is of course a key for this election cycle.

McAuliffe is a far better candidate than he was four years ago.

He has the ability to bring in large amounts of money, including gearing some towards the House of Delegates races.  Here is it worth noting that in the Senate race last year between Kaine and former Senator George Allen for the seat that Jim Webb was vacating, Kaine carried 51 Delegate districts held by Republicans.  While it is highly unlikely, given gerrymandering, that the Dems can take back the House of Delegates, there are real opportunities for pick-ups, and the additional financial support will not hurt.

If you ask me, a Virginia resident since 1982, the state of the race right now, I would suggest that decades long pattern of voting for a Governor of a different party than the man elected president the previous year is in serious jeopardy.  

I expect McAuliffe to win.  It is far from a certainty, but is is looking increasingly likely.  Some of the reasons are not visible to people out of state.  On Saturday they had over a thousand people out canvassing and door knocking.  Our door got knocked - we vote in Democratic primaries, we are in a heavy Democratic precinct, in heavily Democratic Arlington County (which with only about 200,000 people provided about 1/3 of Obama's statewide margin in 2012).  The campaign is very focused on getting its core voters committed.

As for the other races, I suspect that if McAuliffe wins, both Northam and Herring will win (LG and AG respectively).  The only issue then will be whether we can hold the state senate seats each will be vacating in special elections, so that we do not lose control of the Senate (which is currently equally divided, with the LG able to cast a tie-breaking vote).

We still have more than 3 months until election day.

At this point 4 years ago it was hard to be a Democrat in Virginia.

This year things are looking brighter, much brighter.

But we will take nothing for granted.

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