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In tight race, Virginia elects Democrat McAuliffe as governor

PoliticsElectionsRepublican PartyNational GovernmentAffordable Care Act (Obamacare)Social Issues

HERNDON, Va. – Democrats took the governor’s office in Virginia late Tuesday, as longtime party insider Terry McAuliffe outpaced his socially conservative rival in an election that raged with national arguments about the federal government shutdown and the rocky unveiling of the Obamacare health insurance program.

McAuliffe came into election day ahead of Republican Ken Cuccinelli in a race that underscored the challenges the GOP is facing nationwide.

Cuccinelli, the state attorney general and a tea party favorite, had found himself unable to close the preelection gap with McAuliffe, despite the Democrat’s considerable baggage. McAuliffe is a former chairman of the national party whose aggressive fundraising tactics during the Clinton years and private business dealings later had made voters uneasy.

Much as President Obama did nationwide in his 2012 reelection campaign, McAuliffe seized on rapidly changing demographics in Virginia. An influx of minorities, immigrants and government workers has created booming suburbs where the values of the electorate do not always align with the socially conservative agenda that served the GOP well in Virginia for decades.

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"Some establishment Republicans are looking at Virginia and saying, 'We need to do everything we can to make sure this does not happen again,'" said Quentin Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

Virginia, one of just a handful of swing states, looms large in part because it served as a tryout for both parties' expected 2014 themes. Republicans had worked hard to leverage public concerns about Obamacare into a symbolic victory. Democrats countered that voters were more concerned by the tea party tactics that led to the recent federal government shutdown than by glitches in the healthcare law.

Prominent Democrats and independent liberal advocacy groups swarmed the state to help McAuliffe, a prolific fundraiser who outspent Cuccinelli nearly 2 to 1. They seized on Virginia’s loose campaign finance rules to hammer the GOP candidate in a coordinated effort to put a Democrat in the governor’s office.

Among those who opened their checkbooks for McAuliffe were several Californians. A campaign committee funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer spent about $2 million. Television producer Haim Saban kicked in $296,500. Financier Ron Burkle donated $158,000.

The Independence USA committee, funded by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent and billionaire who has worked to punish ideologically extreme candidates, donated $1.7 million to help the Democrat. Planned Parenthood spent nearly as much. The president, Vice President Joe Biden, and Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton all campaigned for McAuliffe.

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Cuccinelli sought to rally his base with conservative counterparts. Tea party celebrities Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz were among those who came to Virginia for him.

Some older voters in the suburb of Herndon, near Dulles International Airport, said Tuesday they could recall the time when that cast of social conservatives might have been able to turn the tide in a candidate’s favor there.

But what was once a sleepy burg full of dairy farms has since boomed into an appendage of Washington with a population exceeding 24,000, an embodiment of the demographic challenge confronting the GOP in Virginia and beyond. The Republican incumbent representing the city in the state Assembly was hoping to hang onto his seat with a campaign that focused on his 224 legislative collaborations with Democrats.

Still, many of the voters who came out to community centers to cast their ballots for Democrat McAuliffe said their decision was driven less by support for him than by opposition to Cuccinelli, a climate skeptic, unrelenting opponent of abortion rights and crusader against Obamacare.

"I was more excited to vote against Cuccinelli than for McAuliffe," said Lauren Durden, a 41-year-old homemaker. "Cuccinelli is way too socially conservative. He is an extremist."

Fahmida Hossain, 33, also a homemaker, said she was troubled by Cuccinelli’s focus on gutting Obamacare. "If that is your main agenda, and your point for going to office, you shouldn’t be in office," she said.

Establishment Republicans say the Virginia race demonstrates that the party is failing to field candidates who appeal to the state’s new electorate. And as more of the country undergoes the kind of population shifts Herndon is experiencing, they warn, the GOP brand will suffer more broadly.

Many of the state’s GOP voters, however, are not persuaded. Several interviewed Tuesday morning in Herndon said they wanted to see more social conservatives like Cuccinelli on the ballot.

"We’ve got a lot of people telling us how to think," said Paul Busch, 58, who owns a small pet-care business. "They are telling us if we want to put a person in the White House, we have to do this or that, and be in the middle…. We don’t need more squishy Republicans."

[Updated, 7:14 p.m. Nov. 5: This post has been updated to reflect McAuliffe's victory in the gubernatorial race.]

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evan.halper@latimes.com

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