HERNDON, Va. — In a race between two candidates the public can't seem to stand, Ken Cuccinelli has history on his side: Over the last nine Virginia gubernatorial elections, victory has gone to the party that does not hold the White House.
But the Republican stands to lose Tuesday to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who has pummeled his opponent as a social conservative ideologue out of step with a diversifying state, which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
"We can't be putting up walls around Virginia. I want as governor to unite people," McAuliffe said during a rally in Herndon, the populous area driving the political shift. "We're with mainstream Virginia."
A Democratic win would highlight challenges the GOP faces as its tea party wing competes with an establishment wanting to reach a broader audience of younger voters, women and minorities. It's a struggle certain to persist through the 2014 midterm elections where a number of congressional Republicans face primary challengers from the right.
If McAuliffe can break the streak here, might the playbook apply to another diverse battleground state also twice won by Obama? Florida Democrats, who haven't controlled the Governor's Mansion since 1998, are plotting to characterize Gov. Rick Scott as similarly extreme, reminding voters of his tea party ties and positions on immigration, abortion and voting rights.
The goal is to turn off moderate Republicans and independent voters in Florida the way they are being repelled in Virginia.
"As they get farther and farther to the right, I get farther and farther to the left," said Mary Jo Ricci, 71, an independent who showed up for the McAuliffe rally, which featured former President Bill Clinton.
Ricci, who voted for President George H.W. Bush and considered Mitt Romney for his work on health care, sat in the back of a middle school gymnasium and spoke over a Bruce Springsteen song playing on the loudspeakers as a crowd — reflecting the diversity that put Obama over the top last November — filled in. Working the sidelines was a fast-talking Democratic operative named Danny Kanner, who is already looking to Florida and Scott.
"The core argument against him will be you can't trust him to fight for you," said Kanner, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association who worked on Charlie Crist's 2010 U.S. Senate bid as an independent.
Crist, the former Republican governor making a comeback bid as a Democrat, will announce a challenge to Scott on Monday and would begin as the frontrunner for the nomination.
• • •
There are clear differences between the states and the players.
McAuliffe, a master fundraiser, has vastly outspent Cuccinelli on TV ads that have highlighted and sometimes distorted his conservative positions, particularly abortion. Scott has already raised more than $18 million and has pledged to pour in $25 million early on to define his opponent.
"Rick Scott will not be outspent 2- to 3- to-1 down the stretch," said David Johnson, a Republican consultant in Florida who countered that Crist's past as a Republican would blunt any attacks on Scott.
"Running on issues of choice, life, abortion, Charlie Crist has a long record of being a 'Jeb Bush pro-life Republican,' " Johnson said. "I just don't think it's going to be successful."
Crist will have to answer to a number of past stances that conflict with his new platform. He could be portrayed as Florida's McAuliffe, a soulless political operator who cannot be trusted.
But Crist has already telegraphed his strategy, explaining his political switch as one driven by an increasingly rigid Republican Party — "extreme," is the word he used for it when he endorsed Obama. (Never mind that he fled the GOP only when it was apparent Marco Rubio had overtaken him in the 2010 Senate primary.)
Scott spent more than $70 million of his own money to win the 2010 race and barely won. He remains one of the most unpopular governors in the country, struggling to connect even as he engaged in a series of gimmicks, such as ditching a necktie for a work shirt. Though he has focused on job creation and can boast of an improving economy, Scott has given critics material to work with.
He unveiled his first budget proposal not in Tallahassee but at a tea party gathering and more recently sided with the tea party in distancing the state from the Common Core education standards. Scott ran in 2010 vowing to bring Arizona-like anti-illegal immigration laws to Florida and this year vetoed a bill that would have allowed children of illegal immigrants to get temporary driver's licenses. In 2011, Scott signed a bill requiring ultrasounds before women can receive abortions. A year before, then-Gov. Crist vetoed similar legislation.
Taken together, Democrats contend, a portrait emerges of Scott that stands in contrast with his desired role as the state's job creator in chief. Scott has taken some steps toward the middle, including pushing to restore cuts made to education spending.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie readily acknowledged Scott's war chest makes him un-Cuccinelli like, and noted that Scott is not known for the kind of conservative rhetoric that the Virginia Republican revels in. Cuccinelli has pushed to preserve the state's anti-sodomy law, for example, saying it's necessary to prosecute child predators.
Beattie said the dismal showing Cuccinelli has with female voters — a Washington Post poll showed a 24-percentage-point gender gap with McAuliffe — could say something about Florida.
"Right now women are saying they want government to work, they don't want extremism and they are turned off by what the tea party has come to symbolize," he said. "The groups Rick Scott spent time courting to win election in 2010 … all those decisions are now liabilities."
• • •
Cuccinelli's liabilities have continued to build. Conservatives used their power to avoid a primary and chose nominees by a convention, which led to the lieutenant governor pick of E.W. Jackson, who has made a string of controversial statements on social issues. Jackson is trailing the Democratic nominee.
"A lot of people look at this ticket and say, 'If these guys win, there's no place for us,' " said Tom Davis, a former GOP congressman from Virginia. "It's almost a poke in the eye at the changing demographics of Virginia."
A gift scandal facing current Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has kept him off the campaign trail and stunted his fundraising abilities. Cuccinelli was tied to the donor who gave the gifts, undercutting his criticism that McAuliffe has been involved in sleazy business deals.
The latest blow was the 16-day government shutdown, which was fueled by hardline Obamacare opponents over the objections of establishment Republicans, who predicted, correctly, the public would take out its anger on Republicans. Polls have shown approval of the GOP at all-time lows. The fallout is especially pronounced in Virginia, which has the second-highest population of federal employees in the nation.
Cuccinelli has struggled to pitch a broader message to focus on job growth and education reform. Republican critics say he spent too much time trying to attack McAuliffe's business dealings. McAuliffe, meanwhile, talks about jobs and transportation, reminding voters in gridlocked northern Virginia that Cuccinelli opposed a sweeping plan, signed into law by McDonnell, to ease congestion. Cuccinelli opposed it as a tax increase.
With Election Day approaching, Cuccinelli is trying to rally his base and late polls showed the race tightening. He has crossed the state in appearances with conservatives, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Sen. Rubio, who will return Monday.
Last week, Cuccinelli showed up at a rally with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, appearing before a crowd of 300 wearing NRA and pro-life stickers and pledging fidelity to the founding fathers.
"We need people to know that Nov. 5 is a referendum in Virginia on Obamacare," Cuccinelli said.
Even amid the enthusiastic crowd were signs that the race had turned into a different referendum — on the direction of the state. "It's going very liberal. It's sad to see," said Nona Faber, 48, a home-school parent. "We see what a disaster Maryland is and now we're welcoming the disaster here with McAuliffe."