Politics

How a 2013 Governor’s Race Explains Clinton–Trump

Two unpopular candidates battering each other in a contest over identity: What happened in Virginia doesn’t bode well for the country.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Two strikingly unpopular candidates. One, the embodiment of establishment politics, a career Democrat long mired in scandal, from shady deals to questionable relationships. The other, a widely disliked and controversial Republican with deep negatives among women voters. Pundits predicted a slugfest of a campaign as the two gave up on persuasion and worked to beat the other into the ground. Political operatives called it a “race to the bottom”—a choice between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” No one expected anything but the worst. Which is what they got: political combat as directed by Zack Snyder, a turgid slugfest between two unlikeable politicians.

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That was the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election between now–Gov. Terry McAuliffe (last seen under investigation for allegedly violating election law) and then–Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, infamous for everything from his proposed, no-exceptions abortion ban and deep opposition to legal rights for LGBT couples to his support for a fringe constitutional theory that would dismantle the welfare state and throw the United States back into an age of gross discrimination and political inequality. McAuliffe wasn’t an extremist—his views fell square in the mainstream of Virginia politics—but he had his own weaknesses in the form of suspect business deals and unscrupulous associates.

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Right now, we’re living through a national, absurdist reboot of this election, if not a shot-for-shot remake. Hillary Clinton is playing the part of McAuliffe, with Trump in the role of Cuccinelli. The similarity between the two races is instructive, telling us something about what happens when elections turn into contests over identity. And what the Virginia election augurs for the aftermath of this fall’s vote is not exactly reassuring.

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Early polls in Virginia were clear on each candidate’s negatives. On the eve of the 2013 election, according to Public Policy Polling, McAuliffe topped out at 36 percent favorable to 52 percent unfavorable. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, was just a little more popular with 39 percent favorability to 52 percent unfavorability. McAuliffe’s advantage was that, among voters who disliked both candidates—a substantial 15 percent of the electorate—the former DNC chair led Cuccinelli 61 percent to 16 percent. As expected, the result was a contest where positive vision was less important than outright attack. And while McAuliffe had an agenda—focused on improving the state’s transportation infrastructure and expanding Medicaid in accordance with the Affordable Care Act—that fact was less important than the race’s overall conditions.

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McAuliffe had a number of things working in his favor: a larger war chest (McAuliffe consistently outspent Cuccinelli), a smartly run campaign (crafted by Robby Mook, present-day architect of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president) that was aimed at rebuilding the Obama coalition in the state, and the good fortune of having a libertarian candidate in the field, one who polled just south of 10 percent before the election and drew largely from Republicans dissatisfied with Cuccinelli. All this was enough to give McAuliffe everything he needed to pull out a narrow win in a year that initially favored the GOP—even with its scandal-ridden incumbent governor.

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Clinton is a close ally of McAuliffe; he got his start as a fundraiser for Bill Clinton. Like him, her time in public life has been defined by scandal and innuendo (much of it debunked), and like him, she’s under official investigation for supposedly taking unnecessary and potentially illegal shortcuts for the sake of expediency. The big difference is that Clinton is more than just a staunch partisan with a penchant for making unseemly decisions: She’s a devoted wonk, with a record of genuine advocacy for children and families, mixed in with bad policy choices. By contrast, McAuliffe is a party operative who happened to have ambitions beyond fundraising.

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In important respects, Trump’s not Cuccinelli. He’s not just ideologically flexible; it’s unclear if he has an ideology at all. Where Cuccinelli had deep-seated principle (or, alternatively, ideological rigidity), Trump has “deals” and “suggestions”—nothing he says is the final word, and even the final word isn’t the final word. Cuccinelli had an agenda for Virginia; Trump believes in “strength.”

But Trump inhabits the same role as Cuccinelli: an outsider, of sorts, with a rocky relationship to his party establishment but one who inspires real devotion from his most serious followers. Trump is defined by his rhetoric as much as anything else and for all it has done in helping him secure a presidential nomination, it has also made him unpopular with large swaths of the electorate, including most women and the vast majority of nonwhites.

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If 2016 takes the same path as 2013 did for Virginia, we should expect an election where policy and ideas take a backseat to vicious political combat between two unpopular standard-bearers. And it’s one where the most mainstream candidate is likely to win, helped along by a libertarian in the third ballot slot. At the same time, this combat isn’t pointless. Their problems aside, McAuliffe and Cuccinelli represented two distinct paths for Virginia: forward in the direction of its cosmopolitan future—rooted in its long-standing black community and its growing immigrant one—or backward to its white, rural, and conservative (even reactionary) past.

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The same is true for Clinton versus Trump. This election isn’t just a fight over tax plans and health care; it’s a contest—a brawl, even—over questions of national identity. Just who is the United States for? Just whom do we mean when we say “Americans?” On one side, we have immigrants, religious minorities, and the descendants of slaves, some disadvantaged, some on the upswing, but each committed to inclusion. On the other, we have an angry and frustrated white minority that’s perhaps still potent enough to win the White House.

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And what happened next in Virginia? Upon taking office, McAuliffe faced a stubborn legislature, steered by Republicans in the House of Delegates, and bolstered by a narrow majority in the state Senate. Republicans blocked his plan for expanding Medicaid, attacked his proposals for transportation funding, and denied him an appointment to the state’s Supreme Court. Far from making progress, the McAuliffe administration has been a rearguard action, a game of defense against highly partisan and organized Virginia Republicans. At one point, McAuliffe floated a unilateral Medicaid expansion, accomplished through executive action. But this, a legal gray area, could have sparked a state constitutional crisis. The plan was scrapped.

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What happened in Virginia wasn’t the result of candidate unpopularity. The acrimony there had as much to do with the stakes of the election itself—a contest a lot like our current one over national identity—as it did with the people in the title roles. And if the present of American politics looks like Virginia in 2013, then the near-future might be a replay of Virginia, right now: an ugly, ferocious election leading to a stalemate, as President Hillary Clinton attempts to accomplish something against a tough and recalcitrant opposition. Hyperpartisanship and extreme obstruction grinding the gears of government to a halt. An impasse that leads, perhaps, to drastic measures. Gov. McAuliffe didn’t preside over a governance crisis, though he came close. Maybe, if she wins, President Clinton will.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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