Following this year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia requires a strong stomach.
It features two very flawed candidates (Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe), nasty and expensive TV ads (see here and here), and a back-and-forth of shorthand names of alleged wrongdoing (Star Scientific, GreenTech).
Yet beyond those storylines, here’s what you need about the Nov. 5 contest: It largely will come down – as most statewide and presidential elections do – to which candidate can win the growing suburbs and exurbs.
This battle for the ‘burbs is all the more noteworthy because both candidates hail from the crucial and vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs – Cuccinelli from Prince William County and McAuliffe from McLean, both outside of Washington, D.C.
But they couldn’t be more different suburban politicians. Cuccinelli is a devout conservative Catholic; McAuliffe is a liberal Catholic. Cuccinelli has home-schooled his children; McAuliffe has sent his to private school. Cuccinelli has served as an attorney and elected politician; McAuliffe has been a businessman and political fixer, but he has never held elected office.
And this suburban battle between these different men raises two key questions in the contest: What is more disqualifying for these voters – Cuccinelli’s socially conservative views, or a potential lack of Democratic enthusiasm about McAuliffe’s candidacy?
“It’s going to come down to the suburbs,” says a Virginia-based Republican operative who’s closely following the contest.
If you win the suburbs, you win the race
Throughout this country’s history, American politics has featured an urban-rural divide. And in recent decades, the Democratic Party has dominated the cities, while Republicans have flexed their muscles in towns and the countryside.
Given this split, the suburbs typically decide the winner of statewide contests. That’s especially true in Virginia, where the suburbs represent a whopping 70 percent of the total vote, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
In 2004, George W. Bush kept John Kerry below 70 percent in the Democratic strongholds of Arlington and Alexandria (right outside of D.C.). He also narrowly lost Fairfax County (also outside of D.C.).
The former Republican president, however, won the swing counties of Loudoun (a D.C. exurb) and Henrico (outside of Richmond).
But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama dominated the Virginia suburbs – he exceeded 70 percent in Arlington and Alexandria; he won 60 percent of the vote in Fairfax; and he took the swing counties of Loudon and Henrico.
The suburban vote also decided Virginia’s last gubernatorial contest.
In 2009, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell won Loudoun (61 percent to 39 percent), Henrico (56 percent to 44 percent) and Fairfax (51 percent to 49 percent), while keeping his Democratic opponent below 70 percent in Arlington and Alexandria.
“Northern Virginia alone is almost a third of the vote,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “You can’t get wiped out in Northern Virginia and win.”
Cuccinelli, the Republican nominee, knows that fact.
“We got to win Loudoun. We got to win Loudoun,” he said last week at a campaign event in the Northern Virginia suburbs. “We got to play hard in Fairfax. I grew up here. I live in Prince William now. We have got to make Northern Virginia a battleground."
Can Cuccinelli play in Fairfax?
But can someone with Cuccinelli’s conservative views – he’s a strong opponent of abortion and gay rights – win in the American suburbs, which have become more and more liberal on some social issues?
Indeed, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from this past April, 55 percent of national suburban residents said they supported gay marriage, up from just 37 percent four years ago.
The McAuliffe campaign also has made an issue of Cuccinelli’s abortion views. “I’m particularly offended by Ken Cuccinelli,” a female doctor says to the camera in a new McAuliffe TV ad. “Cuccinelli wants to make all abortion illegal, even in cases of rape and incest… I want a governor who is focused on schools and creating jobs, not someone who wants to do my job.”
McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin tells NBC News: "Ken Cuccinelli's extreme record on social issues and opposition to the transportation compromise are particularly deadly in the Northern Virginia suburbs
Yet a more recent NBC/WSJ poll, from back in July, shows that abortion could be a jump-ball issue in the suburbs.
In that survey, 47 percent of national suburban residents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 50 percent said that it should be illegal – either with exceptions or without them.
What’s more, the same poll found 48 percent of suburban Americans are concerned that Republicans would go too far in promoting a conservative agenda on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
But an almost equal number – 46 percent – said they were concerned that Democrats would go too far in promoting a liberal agenda on these issues.
“The party that can win [in the suburbs] is the party that can show it is not ideological and that can show it’s more results-oriented,” says veteran Democratic Virginia political strategist Mo Elleithee, who now serves as the Democratic National Committee’s communications director.
Will Democratic voters show up for McAuliffe?
But if Cuccinelli’s potential vulnerability in the suburbs is his conservative views, McAuliffe’s is if Democrats turn out to vote, especially those who elected and re-elected President Obama.
This comes as the Cuccinelli camp and Republicans have raised questions about McAuliffe’s qualifications for governor and his ties to state, about his past business dealings and about his past behavior (such as drinking shots of rum on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”).
“McAuliffe is only interested in helping himself, and will do and say anything to mislead Virginia voters," Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix tells NBC News. "As more and more voters in the suburbs – many of whom voted to elect Cuccinelli multiple times to the state Senate and as attorney general – focus in on the race, they will support the serious candidate who has the experience to lead and has fought for them throughout his entire career.”
As Republican strategists put it, Cuccinelli has a base of conservative supporters who would walk over glass to vote for the Republican nominee. The same, they say, can’t be said for McAuliffe.
“[Cuccinelli] has the enthusiasm advantage, and it grows as voter turnout declines,” the University of Virginia’s Sabato adds.
But Sabato adds that the intensity of opposition to Cuccinelli can drive Democratic voters to polls. “McAuliffe lucked into being the Democratic nominee at just the right moment,” he says. “It all depends on who you run against.”
And it depends on how you run in the suburbs, too.
NBC’s Jessica Taylor contributed to this article.