The Virginia gubernatorial race was expected to be one of Tuesday's closest. But it ended up far closer than predicted, giving both Republicans and Democrats fodder in their bigger picture and premature arguments over 2014.
After the problems with Healthcare.gov came to light, the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, took to calling the race a "referendum on Obamacare." His argument: If you don't like Obamacare, vote for me. On the other side, allies of the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, more subtly suggested that the race was actually about the shutdown, and, more broadly, the conservative Tea Party activists that prompted it. Cuccinelli fed the flames of this argument when he blamed the shutdown for this dropping poll numbers earlier in October; he later back-tracked.
Even before the race was called, Republican pundits declared that one of those arguments was correct: the one about Obamacare. On CNN, Newt Gingrich and The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol riffed on the margin of defeat for Cuccinelli (which will probably end up being in the range of three points or so) as having been closer than expected precisely because of the Obamacare issue. Gingrich, for example, noted polls showing a double-digit McAuliffe lead last month, suggesting that the narrow actual margin of victory indicated that Americans were turning against the healthcare policy. In his concession speech, Cuccinelli made a similar point. (While it's true that some polls showed a wide lead for McAuliffe, most showed a fairly consistent six- or seven-point spread.) One set of exit polls showed that there wasn't a strong link between Obamacare and the candidates, however: 53 percent of voters oppose the policy, far more than gave Cuccinelli their votes.
Democrats, in the stronger position of having won, were more subdued in noting the connection. MSNBC and Huffington Post's Howard Fineman blamed the shutdown directly, in large part because voters in the state, disproportionately damaged by the work stoppage, overwhelmingly picked McAuliffe, as ABC reports.
Three in 10 Virginia voters overall said someone in their household was affected by the partial federal shutdown last month – and they were far more likely to blame the Republican Party than Barack Obama for letting it happen, by a 21-point margin, 57-36 percent. ... McAuliffe won voters impacted by the shutdown by 57-36 percent.
Others offered different reasons for Cuccinelli's loss, including his adamant opposition to abortion and support for restrictions on divorce, among other social issues. Women voted heavily against Cuccinelli, according to exit polls.
All of this analysis is premature, at best. As the Huffington Post's Sam Stein put it, 2014 is "ONE YEAR from now." The issues that Gingrich and Kristol and Democrats advocate now are very likely not the ones that voters will be concerned about in November 2014, particularly against different candidates. But the political world will never stop spinning.
Original liveblog updates
9:43 p.m.: Cuccinelli's party has quieted down.
At the Cuccinelli party the moment McAuliffe takes the lead pic.twitter.com/TzCqoagUT7— daveweigel (@daveweigel) November 6, 2013
9:39 p.m.: And now NBC calls it for McAuliffe.
9:35 p.m.: For the first time, the Virginia Secretary of State's website shows McAuliffe with the lead — albeit a small one.
9:24 p.m.: Fox News calls it for McAuliffe, first to do so.
9:17 p.m.: ABC's Jeff Zeleny says that Republican leaders are privately conceding defeat.
9:15 p.m.: McAuliffe supporters are getting excited.
McAuliffe for Governor party HQ getting fired up with VA Dems addressing supporters. pic.twitter.com/EDgViCtujc— M. Scott Mahaskey (@smahaskey) November 6, 2013
9:06 p.m.: Sarvis, the libertarian, is at about 7 percent support. Some have considered Sarvis a potential spoiler, thinking that he's drawing support from Cuccinelli's base. But a poll last week showed that the second choice of Sarvis voters was more likely to be McAuliffe — perhaps because of his support from young voters. (Of course, that poll also showed McAuliffe winning by six points.)
9:03 p.m.: McAuliffe continues to close the gap. With 81 percent in, he trails by only 1.3 percent of the vote. Again, the important thing is the trend: the race continues to get tighter, not farther apart.
8:57 p.m.: About two hours after polls close, still no winner. One thing is clear: this is a tighter race than expected.
8:48 p.m.: More numbers in, and McAuliffe continues to close the gap. Much of Democratic Northern Virginia is still to come in; Cuccinelli leads by only three points. The trend has been entirely in McAuliffe's direction.
According to CNN, 60 percent of what's out is in the more Democratic parts of the state.
8:44 p.m.: Good news for McAuliffe from Slate's Dave Weigel.
Henrico (Richmond burbs) mostly in. McAuliffe winning by 13; Obama won it by 12. #VAGov— daveweigel (@daveweigel) November 6, 2013
8:40 p.m.: The AP has called the lieutenant governor's race; Northam, the Democrat, is the winner.
8:38 p.m.: CNN has released more exit polls. Cuccinelli repeatedly called the race a "referendum on Obamacare." The exit polls show that that didn't work out. "In Virginia, 48% support the Affordable Care Act and 50% are opposed to it," the exit polls show — but McAuliffe still led.
8:34 p.m.: It's worth comparing tonight's results from those in 2009, when current governor Bob McDonnell won re-election. You can see that map at right, via USElectionAtlas, with traditional red-blue/Republican-Democrat representation switched. McDonnell won even the areas in Northern Virginia, which McAuliffe is winning tonight.
8:30 p.m.: The race continues to tighten as votes are counted — it's now at five points. The trend continues to be against Cuccinelli.
8:27 p.m.: Cuccinelli's team — even as the candidate still leads — tells the Washington Post that it's "not looking great." The trend is against the attorney general.
8:20 p.m.: With 39 percent of the state reporting results, Cuccinelli leads the governor's race by eight points. But you should watch as results come in are how the trend evolves. The race is tightening in McAuliffe's direction.
Do keep an eye on the counties in the northern part of the state. They tend to be more Democratic, and haven't yet come in.
7:10 p.m.: Shortly after polls closed, NBC's Chuck Todd suggested on-air that the early exit polls suggested an outcome that should have Republican leaders in "full panic mode" given how well the Democrat is doing despite Obama's low poll numbers.