WASHINGTON -- No, Obamacare didn’t almost cost Terry McAuliffe his narrow gubernatorial victory in Virginia. But dodging that bullet shouldn’t be much comfort to other Democrats.
For one, it’s not clear that implementation of the Affordable Care Act is going to improve or that, even if it does, the law will become more popular. Plus, McAuliffe was saved by two factors that Democrats won’t necessarily be able to repeat elsewhere in 2014: a monumental cash advantage and a local electorate deeply affected by a federal government shutdown.
So the lesson of Virginia is obvious: What the Democrats really need is another Ted Cruz-led crisis.
First-wave analysis of the closer-than-expected Virginia result accepted the explanation -- rising distaste for Obamacare -- put forward by the losing Republican, Ken Cuccinelli. And it is true that candidate McAuliffe took no chances when it came to the controversial, complex program. He mentioned it only obliquely, focusing just on the expansion of Medicaid the law makes possible. Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden mentioned it at all when they campaigned in Virginia in the final hours.
Voters in both states were significantly split on the question of whether they supported or opposed the law. In Virginia, it was 46 percent for to 53 percent against; in New Jersey it was 48 percent for to 50 percent against.
Virginia voters who named health care as their number one concern leaned somewhat for the Republican candidate -- 49 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 45 percent voted for McAuliffe. But 11 percent of those who said they oppose the law still voted for the Democrat.
McAuliffe, one of the leading fundraisers and bundlers in the modern history of the Democratic Party, was helped in part by an almost 2-1 cash advantage that translated to bigger ad buys across the state and allowed him to carpet-bomb the Washington media market.
Those focused TV attacks on Cuccinelli’s ultra-conservative positions on abortion, gay rights and science left the Democrat, by default, as the “moderate” in the race. Among the 44 percent of Virginia voters who called themselves moderates, McAuliffe won decisively, 56 percent to 34 percent. (Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey won moderates by a 61-37 percent margin.)
But the biggest factor in Virginia was the government shutdown in October, engineered by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. All of Virginia -- not just the D.C. suburbs -- is heavily dependent on federal spending, both in terms of direct employment and government contractors for everything from the military to medical research.
One-third of voters in Virginia said that someone in their household had been “affected” by the shutdown. And those voters -- more than 700,000 of them -- went for McAuliffe over Cuccinelli by a margin of 56 to 37 percent.
That’s McAuliffe’s victory right there.
Obamacare isn’t popular, and it has flaws and drawbacks that Cruz, among others, wants to highlight and exploit. But shutting down the government to make that point ended up costing the Republicans Virginia.
Will Cruz try it again? Democrats have to hope so.