Never has Virginia seen a gubernatorial election in which the two candidates were less popular than Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli. The last time in recent political memory that the major-party candidates for statewide office had higher combined personal negative ratings was in 1991, when Louisiana had to choose between indicted former Democratic governor Edwin Edwards and Republican challenger David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
One question on many Virginians’ minds: How did we get here? Another: How do we make sure this never happens again? The answer to the second question is complex, but how we got here is simple: Virginia’s one-term limit for the Commonwealth’s governors.
Reforming this provision has been a priority for business leaders and governors for decades. A fix has been less urgent in the General Assembly, whose members believe that a rotating cast of governors only boosts their relevance. Mark Warner came closest to giving the governor a second term in 2003, only to come up two votes short in the House of Delegates.
There are plenty of negatives to the one-and-out governor. Frequent transitions cost money. Governors are often forced from office just as they hit their stride. The biggest downside is that parties are forced to select candidates who aren’t ready to lead. This year’s matchup is a perfect example of what happens when both parties run out of good options.
There are some positives. Every four years, the warring sides pour millions into the economy paying for ads on TV and radio, not to mention for political consultants, who remain fully employed in what is often an off-year.
Imagine, however, the political landscape today without the term limit. Let’s begin after Douglas Wilder’s 1989 election as Virginia’s first African-American governor. Thanks to the early-’90s recession, George Allen defeats him and stays in the office until 2002, skipping his run for the US Senate against Chuck Robb to keep his Democratic lieutenant governor, Don Beyer, from succeeding him. He’s followed by Jim Gilmore, who falls in 2005 to Mark Warner, who grabs retiring US senator John Warner’s seat in 2008, making his LG, Tim Kaine, governor. In 2009, a Republican year, Kaine loses to Jerry Kilgore, who easily beats Creigh Deeds in 2013. At this point, the GOP bench for 2017 is loaded with LG Bill Bolling and Attorney General Robert McDonnell, while the Democrats, holding both Senate seats, search for a candidate.
Where does that leave Cuccinelli and McAuliffe? Blocked from advancing, Cuccinelli eventually loses his state-senate seat in the new, blue Fairfax. At a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference on the importance of state legislative races, some remark that he could have been a great statewide candidate if he had hung on. McAuliffe, meanwhile, is still appearing on Morning Joe, using his bottle of Puerto Rican rum to bait cohost Mika Brzezinski into taking a weekend vacation. Maybe Florida will need a governor soon after all?
Benjamin Tribbett is CEO of Pinpoint Technology, a voter-turnout consultancy, and writes the blog Not Larry Sabato.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.