Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, right, during a debate for Virginia governor.
(Photo: Linda Davidson, AP)
Polls show McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by double digits among women, who helped elect President Obama in 2008 and 2012.
WOODBRIDGE, Va. - When she turns on her TV, Alma Jackson gets upset by the ads in the governor's race supporting Democrat Terry McAuliffe that depict Republican Ken Cuccinelli as anti-woman.
"They're repulsive and disgusting," said Jackson, a retiree from nearby Fairfax who attended a pre-election GOP rally here in Prince William County. "They are flat-out lies."
The portrayal of Cuccinelli, the state attorney general, as a hard-line social conservative has gained steam in recent months. President Obama and Vice President Biden both focused on Cuccinelli's opposition to abortion rights and his views on women's health issues as they helped McAuliffe make his closing arguments before Tuesday's election.
New Jersey is also holding a governor's election Tuesday, but all eyes are on Virginia, where the candidates have waged a sometimes bitter battle to succeed GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell. State law forbids governors from serving consecutive terms.
McAuliffe, a former national Democratic Party chairman, has been leading Cuccinelli for several months in statewide polling, with women voters providing a significant margin in his favor. The Democrat had at least a 14-point advantage over his GOP rival among women in polls released last week by Christopher Newport, Quinnipiac and Hampton universities. A Washington Post poll had McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli among women by 24 points.
By comparison, Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 11 points among women in 2012 and bested John McCain by 7 percentage points in 2008 among female voters.
"Women voters are energized around issues of health, concerns about abortion and birth control," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy. "The gender gap is real."
In Arlington, as she waited for Obama to rally support for McAuliffe on Sunday, Precious Crabtree used a phrase that Democrats often trotted out last year against Republicans.
"I believe there's a war on women," said Crabtree, an elementary school teacher from Burke, Va. She said she supports McAuliffe because she believes women would have "opportunity and make decisions on our own" if the Democrat were governor.
At a pre-election rally here in his home base of Prince William County, Cuccinelli said this weekend that his rival's TV ads are all designed to show "what a terrible human being I'm supposed to be." He joked that he "shaved my horns just for you all."
Patti Edgar, who wore a Women for Cuccinelli T-shirt at the GOP rally, doesn't buy the characterization of the GOP candidate. She and Jackson noted that Cuccinelli started a program in 1991 while at the University of Virginia that raises awareness about sexual assault and has pushed to crack down on sexual predators while attorney general.
"Ken's got five daughters. He helps women. Teiro (his wife) wouldn't put up with it," said Edgar, who lives in Woodbridge and runs her own travel agency.
His final pitch to voters, which he repeated in appearances in the campaign's home stretch with rising GOP stars such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, was to tie McAuliffe to Obama and Democratic Party ideology.
"There's an answer key for every issue between Terry and I," Cuccinelli said. "Take the bigger government position, and there you find Terry. Take the limited government position, and there you find Ken. It works for all of them."
The narrative a year ago about McAuliffe was about his failed campaign for governor in 2009, his ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and his leadership of an electric car company that he located in Mississippi instead of Virginia. His negatives were high, but so were Cuccinelli's. Now, 52% of likely voters in the Quinnipiac Poll say they have an unfavorable view of Cuccinelli vs. 46% for McAuliffe.
Charlie Judd, chairman of the state Board of Election, predicts turnout could be as low as 30% among registered voters because neither side appears enthusiastic about their candidate. That would be off significantly from 2005, when nearly 45% of Virginia voters cast ballots, and 2009 when turnout was just more than 40%.
"Those on the ideological extreme are motivated to vote," McAuliffe said, urging his supporters to take nothing for granted. "If mainstream Virginians from both parties don't turn out to vote, you're letting the Tea Party decide Virginia's future."
Prince William County, one of the state's fastest growing counties about 25 miles from Washington, has been an indicator in recent Virginia elections. The county has sided with the winner of the past 12 Virginia elections for president, governor and U.S. senator - regardless of which party has won the office.
An unknown this year is the impact of Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who has been in the high single digits in recent polling that also shows he is draining support from Cuccinelli. Sarvis left the Republican Party in 2011 after losing a state Senate race to Democrat Richard Saslaw, then the state Senate majority leader.
"Sarvis has been an effective 'none of the above' candidate," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. "People might feel freer to vote for Sarvis."
For McAuliffe, much is riding on his ability to replicate not only Obama's model with women voters but also with the 18- to 29-year-olds and minorities who helped the president win the White House. If the Democrat is successful, then political experts predict it could be a prototype next year in Senate and governor races.
"Everyone would have assumed Terry McAuliffe was a relatively weak candidate going into this," Kidd said. "If they can use this Obama model to turn a weak candidate into a strong winner, then that says something about what Democrats will do."
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