Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) was ineligible to run for re-election in 2013 because of term limits. The term limits Virginia imposes on its governors are more strict than any other state in the country. Under the commonwealth's constitution, no governor may serve back-to-back terms. This means that McDonnell, unlike other governors in their first term, was ineligible to run for re-election.
There are no such term limits on the attorney general, and many were surprised at fomer AG Ken Cuccinelli's (R) decision to run for governor, rather than seek another term. If not for Cuccinelli, outgoing Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling would have been the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to succeed McDonnell. Due to the decision by the Republican Party of Virginia to change their candidate nomination method from open primary election to closed nominating convention starting in 2013, and "tea party darling" Cuccinelli's presence in the race, Bolling withdrew his bid for the GOP nod in November 2012. About the alternative of seeking re-election to his current post, Bolling stated that “Under normal circumstances, I would be open to the possibility of running for another term as lieutenant governor, but I would not be interested in running on a statewide ticket with Mr. Cuccinelli.” He later said he regretted dropping out of the race as early as he did.
McDonnell had previously pledged his support for Bolling's candidacy, in part because Bolling refrained from challenging McDonnell for governor in 2009. After Bolling bowed out, McDonnell chose to endorse fellow Republican Cuccinelli for his successor, despite Cuccinelli's outspoken opposition to McDonnell's Transportation Initiative, which was considered to be the centerpiece of his gubernatorial legacy. Ironically, Cuccinelli's future general election opponent, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, had been equally outspoken on the issue, but as an advocate and defender of the outgoing governor's approach to amending the state's transportation funding policy.
Like Cuccinelli and Sarvis, McAuliffe faced no primary opponent. Days from the election, McAuliffe held a comfortable polling and fundraising lead over Cuccinelli and Sarvis. Aggregated polling data had the Democratic nominee with an average edge of seven percentage points over Cuccinelli--an advantage that could have been attributed in large part to female voters' 58-34 preference of McAuliffe, since he and Cuccinelli were almost neck-and-neck among men. During the last campaign finance reporting period, ending October 28, McAuliffe reported raising $8.1 million to Cuccinelli's $2.9 million, and holding $1.6 million in cash on hand, which was twice the size of Cuccinelli's warchest. Sarvis was trailing both with a reported $81,595 raised and $58,584 on hand. Hillary Clinton's decision to come out in support of McAuliffe on October 19 - marking her first campaign event appearance since stepping down as U.S. Secretary of State - further enhanced the Democrat's frontrunner status. Former President Bill Clinton threw in his support soon thereafter, followed by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who joined the McAuliffe campaign effort in the final week of the election season.
The three contenders squared off in the general election on November 5, 2013, which McAuliffe won by a margin of 2.6% percentage points.
Impact of US government shutdown on governor's race
The high profile federal government shutdown coincided with the home stretch of the expensive and high-profile 2013 Virginia governor race, which created a fresh backdrop for the battle between major party nominees Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R), and provided a brand new context in which to undermine each candidate's character and leadership potential. Each campaign released an ad during the aftermath of the shutdown, which arrived on the heels of the candidates' second debate.
With the nation paying close attention to its government in light of the perceived failure of Congress to work together in the best interests of their constituents, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli's ads each highlighted features of his opponent which most closely mirrored the type of stubbornness displayed by the House and Senate leading up to the shutdown, and to which the general public was, at that moment, so sensitively attuned. That moment, to be more specific, was one month before the general election. As the competition stood, McAuliffe had an overall average lead in the polls of 5.3 points over his Republican foe.
Hoping to use the shutdown to further advance his edge by painting Cuccinelli in with the GOP ideologues in Congress, McAuliffe's ad emphasized Cuccinelli's strong ties to tea party leader U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), since Cruz was an outspoken supporter both of Cuccinelli and the far-right congressional insurgency which, in seeking to defund Obamacare, was regarded as causing the shutdown. The ad cited Cuccinelli's past effort to defund Planned Parenthood, apparently bringing the Virginia legislature "to a standstill," and also claimed Cuccinelli had been sufficiently opposed to Mark Warner's 2004 budget to call for a shutdown of the state government.
Cuccinelli's ad aimed to discredit McAuliffe by referencing articles from The Washington Post and the Richmond-Times Dispatch criticizing McAuliffe's prospective budget plan, which he had allegedly threatened he would shut down the government over in order to get the plan passed. The radio spot also accused McAuliffe of being "against compromise, against working together to find solutions,” and noted how the Democrat sided with his fellow party members in Congress who had vocally dismissed opportunities to collaborate with the Republicans to avert shutdown.
A unique opportunity was identified for the solo third party candidate in the race, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, in the shutdown atmosphere, where disillusionment with the standard of government operation ran rampant. Had Sarvis not been barred from participating in the third debate with McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, it was thought that he could have used the reflected spotlight to lure substantial number of voters who, already frustrated by Congress' showcase of two-party gridlock, would be more sympathetic than usual to a non-major party nominee.
"People are looking for other options they don't like what they have to see from those two parties and we're trying to fill that void with principled advocacy for more freedom in our economic sphere and personal lives," stated Sarvis. His passive warning about "obvious dysfunction of our [federal] government" also existing on the state and local level could have had an especially profound impact on swing voters and the average 9% of voters who were still polling as undecided at the beginning of November.
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- The Washington Post, "GOP Fratricide in Virginia," December 1, 2012
- Washington Post, "Bill Bolling decides not to seek GOP nomination for VA governor," November 28, 2012
- The Roanoke Times, "Could Bolling run for governor as an independent?," November 28, 2102
- The Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Bolling regrets dropping out of the race so soon," April 22, 2013
- The Collegian, "Obama victory could cost Democrats Virginia governorship," November 15, 2012
- NBC 12- Decision Virginia 2013, "Transportation battle creates awkward political triangle," March 26, 2013
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- nbc29.com, "Robert Sarvis: I'm giving voters a better option," October 5, 2013