Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins Virginia governor race, AP projects

Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins Virginia governor race, AP projects

Credit: Getty Images

TYSONS CORNER, VA - NOVEMBER 5: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) speaks to the media prior to the start of an election night event for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D), November 5, 2013 in Tysons Corner, VA. McAuliffe faced off against Ken Cuccinelli (R) in Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


by ABC News

Posted on November 5, 2013 at 11:44 PM

(ABC News) --  In the battle for governor of Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe pulled out a narrow victory Tuesday over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Associated Press projected.

With 94 percent of precincts reporting, McAuliffe led by a percentage point in a contest that saw his opponent take an early lead and hold it for more than two hours after the polls closed.

Virginia's odd year governor election and the state's status as a pivotal swing state has made this race the most-watched contest this year for both the Democratic and Republican parties.

Democrats believe that McAuliffe's victory over tea party-backed Cuccinelli will send a signal that voters will hold Republicans accountable for the government shutdown in the 2014 midterm elections.

"The American people reject tea party extremism, they reject the idea that it's okay to hold the economy hostage in the name of denying quality affordable health care and they simply want us to work together," Democratic National Committee Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz told ABC News tonight. "I think through the 2014 midterms you'll see that very stark contrast."

"The tea party and the Republican Party are equated by voters and they can't get away from the extremism even though they might try," she added.

Both political parties have poured vast resources into this race.

McAuliffe, a prolific Democratic fundraiser and personal friend of former President Bill and Hillary Clinton, outraised his opponent by more than $33 million to $21 million. And his outside group allies, including Planned Parenthood, and a pro-gun control group funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have spent millions on the airwaves attacking Cuccinelli.

Both men, however, were flawed candidates who are odd fits for Virginia's deepening purple hue.

McAuliffe is better-known as one of the Democratic Party's most skilled political animals than the middle-of-the-road candidate he pitched himself as to voters during the campaign.

And tea party-backed Cuccinelli ran a fiercely conservative campaign in a state that is becoming less and less Republican with each passing day, largely as a result of demographic changes in the vote-rich DC suburbs.

Neither candidate inspired voters in this race with their scandal-plagued candidacies.

McAuliffe ran into trouble for ties to a beleaguered green car company, and Cuccinelli was tied to a gift scandal that embroiled the state's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

And many saw a vote for one man as really a vote against the other.

Cuccinelli has been unsuccessful in overcoming the accusations by his opponents that his social conservative views on abortion, gay marriage and contraception are too extreme for Virginians. Arguably his ideological steadfastness, not moderation, was the key part of his playbook.

"His positions on social issues are well to the right of this increasingly moderate state," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for politics. "It's a Mid-Atlantic state, not a Southern state."

Cuccinelli cut his teeth on the national political stage as the attorney general who became "literally the first human being" to challenge the Affordable Care Act in the courts once it became law in 2010, as he often boasts on the campaign trail.

Democrats are painting Cuccinelli's loss as a cautionary tale for his tea party-tinged brand of conservatism and those in his party with presidential ambitions who are considering framing their candidacy in a way that mirrors his gubernatorial campaign.

 They believe that his focus on the health care law in the final stages of the campaign essentially had no impact on the race—making that message a loser for Republicans in 2014 and beyond.

Indeed, according to preliminary exit poll results, voters were essentially split on the issue of the Affordable Care Act.

But perhaps the biggest warning sign for Cuccinelli is his standing among women voters, who out-vote men and are a key indicator in national elections.

Democrats launched a concerted strategy to exacerbate Cuccinelli's problems with women with an unrelenting stream of negative ads labeling his positions on abortion and other social issues as extreme.

And preliminary exit poll results suggest a far more moderate electorate on issues than one Cuccinelli hope to appeal to. Six in ten voters, according to those results, say they support legal abortion.

"I think this will be a very good test case," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake during a recent briefing on her party's efforts to increase turnout among young, minority and unmarried women voters in off-year elections like this one and the 2014 midterms.

The "Rising American Electorate" as it has been termed by Democrats, is being increasingly viewed as the key to Democratic victories nationwide.