Townhall Magazine just ran a feature on Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, asking "can a conservative still win big?" The "big" part remains to be seen, but a new Quinnipiac poll suggests that Cuccinelli certainly has a decent opportunity to pull off a victory in November. We'll get into the specifics of this survey in a moment, but first, the basics (via National Journal):
The Quinnipiac University survey unveiled Wednesday shows Cuccinelli leading his likely Democratic opponent, 40 percent to 38 percent, with 18 percent undecided. In the previous poll, conducted in mid-February, the two were tied at 38 percent apiece. Both candidates remain relatively unknown in the state. Twenty percent of voters report a favorable view of McAuliffe, versus 16 percent with an unfavorable view, but 63 percent say they haven't heard enough about him to form an opinion. Thanks to a previous statewide run, voters are slightly more familiar with Cuccinelli, but 44 percent still say they haven't heard enough about him. Three-in-ten voters view the attorney general favorably, while 24 percent view him unfavorably. Cuccinelli leads McAuliffe among independent voters, 37 percent to 29 percent, but a slightly higher, albeit small, percentage of voters view him as overly partisan: 29 percent say Cuccinelli is too conservative, while 21 percent say McAuliffe is too liberal.
This has to be encouraging news for the Cuccinelli campaign, even though edging slightly ahead in a virtual tie -- with a substantial chunk of undecideds -- is hardly a robust position. Let's review the timeline: Barack Obama carried Virginia by six points in 2008, which helped catapult Republican Bob McDonnell into the governor's mansion the very next year. In spite of the Washington Post's concerted efforts, McDonnell won in an 18-point blowout. But even though McDonnell remains popular and the GOP achieved gains in Virginia's 2011 midterms, Obama held on to the Commonwealth in 2012, though his previous margin was shaved nearly in half. If the '08/'09 pattern were to hold, Cuccinelli would be exceptionally well-positioned to take the governor's race this fall. But some clouds have gathered over the Virginia GOP in recent weeks. McDonnell, who is term-limited, introduced a transportation bill that will likely amount to a net tax hike. Cuccinelli rightly opposed it, alienating the governor and some of the NoVa business community in the process. McDonnell tweaked the legislation at the eleventh to satisfy a few of Cuccinelli's concerns, but the overall bill is still very suspect in toto. This imbroglio fractured the state's Republican Party and fueled rumors that McDonnell's Lt. Governor would challenge Cuccinelli and McAuliffe as a center-right independent. (This would have been a gift to Democrats). Bolling ultimately begged off, and the McDonnell and Cuccinelli camps are attempting to make nice. So against that turbulent backdrop, Cuccinelli's slight edge in the Q-poll is encouraging. It suggests that he may have weathered a fairly nasty political tempest.
But the survey's large percentage of undecided voters indicates that many Virginians haven't really tuned into the race just yet. Democrats will be eager to further 'blue-ify' Virginia this year, and with the New Jersey race looking hopeless, Democrats will throw everything they've got at Cuccinelli. OFA will certainly be involved. Already, clipboard-wielding Democratic staffers are registering voters at Metro stops in Northern Virginia, and McAuliffe is running banner ads on news and sports-themed websites. The Left (unsuccessfully) tried to paint Bob McDonnell as a wild-eyed extremist in 2009; the Attorney General is a step or two to McDonnell's right, so it's not a mystery how Democrats will attempt to cast this year's nominee. The Virginia GOP got its clock cleaned in 2008 and 2012, but cleaned up in 2009 and 2010. How will 2013 look? A lot closer than 2009 -- that's all but guaranteed. Despite McDonnell's strong approval ratings and the state's economic strength, Republicans will need to bring their A-game to retain this governorship.
UPDATE - As mentioned above, the other major 2013 race is in New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie's momentum shows few signs of fading. The latest poll shows Christie clinging to a 35-point lead over his likely Democrat opponent:
Seven months before New Jersey voters go to the polls, Gov. Chris Christie continues to enjoy a more than 2-1 lead over his most likely Democratic challenger, state Senator Barbara Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday. Although Ms. Buono is expected to win her party's June primary, polls show Mr. Christie beating her 60%-25% in the November gubernatorial contest. Mr. Christie's advantage comes with a 70% job approval rating. This result continues the governor's "four-month string of +70 percent approval ratings, the highest score of any governor in the seven states surveyed" by Quinnipiac, a press release accompanying the poll reports. Mr. Christie's approval ratings soared after he led the Garden State through the October 2012 superstorm Sandy and its harrowing aftermath. The poll finds Mr. Christie maintaining leads among men and women. He defeats Ms. Buono in every region of the state, the poll press release notes, including 48%-36% "in urban areas, normally Democratic strongholds." While a vein of national Republicans grumbled at Mr. Christie's November embrace of President Obama in the days after the fall storm, 90% of New Jersey Republicans are standing by their man.
Christie's also pulling in major campaign cash, making Buono's task even taller. Unless the bottom unexpectedly falls out from under the Christie juggernaut, national Democrats are going to focus their resources and energy on Virginia. Conservatives ought to take note.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography