By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Democrat Terry McAuliffe's lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the widely watched Virginia governor's race may be helping lower-level Democratic candidates in a state hard hit by the recent government shutdown, a poll showed on Wednesday.
A Roanoke College poll showed businessman and former Democratic National Committee Chairman McAuliffe with a 15-point lead over state Attorney General Cuccinelli, though that margin was far stronger than in two other polls.
"This election is shaping up to be a referendum on Cuccinelli," said Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College.
Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favorite and strong abortion opponent, was hurt by this month's federal government shutdown and now has a 52 percent unfavorable rating among likely voters, compared with McAuliffe's 33 percent unfavorability, the poll found.
"When you're in the 40s, that's high. When you hit the 50s, you're in uncharted territory," Wilson said.
Six days before the November 5 election, he said McAuliffe appeared to have "coattails" pulling along fellow Democrats, including attorney general candidate Mark Herring, now leading Republican Mark Obenshain by 46 percent to 35 percent. A poll earlier this month showed that race a statistical dead heat.
In the race for lieutenant governor, Democrat Ralph Northam leads Republican E.W. Jackson 48 percent to 32 percent.
Two other polls released on Wednesday also had McAuliffe leading, but by smaller margins. A Quinnipiac University survey found McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli 45 percent to 41 percent.
A poll by the Hampton University Center for Public Policy put McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli 42 percent to 36 percent.
The race in the political swing state is being watched closely as a bellwether for 2014 congressional elections. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell is barred by law from seeking a second term.
The election could show the impact of this month's government shutdown and face off over the U.S. debt limit on the Republican Party. Polls in Virginia, which relies heavily on federal paychecks and contracts, have shown that Republicans are widely blamed for the shutdown.
McAuliffe is a friend of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, both of whom have campaigned and raised money for him in the election.
Cuccinelli has been damaged by the shutdown and for accepting gifts from a Virginia businessman whose separate gift-giving to McDonnell has sparked a federal investigation.
A Washington Post-ABT-SRBI poll on Monday showed McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by 51 percent to 39 percent.
The margins of error are 3.4 percentage points for the Roanoke poll and 2.9 percentage points for both the Quinnipiac and Hampton surveys.
(Editing by Ian Simpson and Dan Grebler)