Sabato: Virginia governor race “leans Democratic”

The official start of Virginia’s 2013 campaign season is still a couple of days away. But Larry Sabato tells us what we all ought to have known for some time. Ken Cuccinelli is behind in the race against Terry McAuliffe:

Terry McAuliffe (D) now has an edge over Ken Cuccinelli (R) in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and we’re changing our rating in the contest from toss-up to LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

Among the factors behind this rating change:

McAuliffe has managed to make the prospect of a Governor Cuccinelli seem scary, while Cuccinelli has “only” succeeded in making McAuliffe look like a run-of-the-mill, self-interested wealthy political hack. In this wholly negative race, that sad distinction matters.

What’s kept Cuccinelli from painting McAuliffe in even less favorable colors? The Bob McDonnell scandal (to which Cuccinelli is connected by the GOP party label and gifts from the same supplicant), his substantially lesser fundraising, E.W. Jackson’s nomination for lieutenant governor, and the defection of a sizable number of moderate Republicans led by the lieutenant governor he left as road kill, Bill Bolling.

If McAuliffe wins, he will be the first Virginia governor elected from the sitting president’s party since Mills Godwin (R) was elected in 1973, when Richard Nixon was in the White House. Also remarkably, should McAuliffe pull this off, it will be the first time since the 1880s that either party has been given just a single consecutive term in the Governor’s Mansion.

One can argue about Bill Bolling’s role as pied piper. but one cannot argue that McAuliffe has raised more money. As for the idea that the months-long flow of talking points from the RNC and the Cuccinelli campaign on GreenTech, Terry’s tax returns, Franklin Pellets, the war on coal and a host of other tangents has served only to make McAuliffe look “like a self-interested hack.” Well. It’s not exactly a character reference.

But I will agree that McAuliffe has done a far better job of hitting Cuccinelli.

The overhang of Bob McDonnell…hmm. That’s a tougher nut. There can be little doubt that McDonnell’s fall has cast a shadow over the GOP, and the Cuccinelli campaign. I get — sort of — the principle behind Cuccinelli’s stand not to give Williams’ gifts back. But this is politics, and perception trumps everything. Not giving the money back was and is an unforced error.

Sabato goes on to put the lieutenant governor’s race at “leans Democratic” and the attorney general contest at “toss-up.”

Interesting. By that reasoning, and barring major changes elsewhere, we could be on track to revisit the 2001 election outcome. But Larry goes into Paul Goldman territory and raises the possibility of a Democratic sweep in November.

But before the right begins looking for its circular firing squad ammo, recall that the real campaign season is now before us. Vacation is over. The kids are back in school. People are now paying attention.

If nothing else, Sabato has done the right a favor. The conventional wisdom is entertaining a possible Democratic sweep in November and it is up to the right to prove the CW wrong.

That can only happen if the candidates agree to do their part. Are they willing to shake off the pre-season dust and get focused? We will know by Tuesday.

My first hint will be the content of the campaign emails waiting for me to read that morning.

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