(WASHINGTON) -- On Sunday, President Obama stumped for his fellow Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, in the Virginia governor race, as Republican Ken Cuccinelli crisscrossed the state in last-minute rallies. But the gubernatorial election has been transformed by both sides into a referendum on national politics.
Speaking to a crowd of 1,600 in the Washington suburbs, the president attempted to associate Cuccinelli with the congressional GOP and the memory of the recent government shutdown.
"There aren't a lot of states that felt more of the pain than folks right here in Virginia," he said at an Arlington, Va., high school.
"Paychecks were delayed. Families were forced to go without the services that they depended on. Business owners took it on the chin when customers cut back on their own spending. And as Terry mentioned, his opponent says he's perfectly happy with it. Now he says it's in the rearview mirror.
"This isn't a game and there are very real consequences when you operate ideologically the way some of these folks do," he said.
The president did not mention Cuccinelli by name in his remarks, but attempted to paint him as a Tea Party ideologue more interested in religious and social activism than governing.
"We will not create jobs when you focus on things like attacking Social Security," he said. "That doesn't create jobs. It doesn't create jobs when you go after scientists, you know, and you try to offer your own alternative theories of how things work and engage in litigation around stuff that isn't political. It has to do with what's true. It has to do with facts."
Obama was referring to a lawsuit Cuccinelli, as state attorney general, brought against the University of Virginia in 2010. Cuccinelli, 45, a climate change skeptic, had targeted UVA over a global warming report using antifraud laws.
Speaking before Obama, McAuliffe, 56, referred to his opponent as having "spent his entire political career driving gridlock from the political fringe," a politician who had "demonized gays" and stood against perceived women's health care rights.
"Ted Cruz, who was the Texas senator who was the architect of the government shutdown, took time off from causing the gridlock in D.C. to come to Virginia to actually campaign for Ken Cuccinelli," McAuliffe said. "And while Cuccinelli was there with Ted Cruz, he refused to speak out and tell Ted Cruz to stop the government shutdown. Stop hurting Virginia families.
"He stood with the Tea Party and not with Virginia families," he said.
McAuliffe and Obama each told the crowd that a Democratic governor would focus on education overhaul and bringing more high-paying jobs to the state.
Obama is the latest, and biggest, in a string of high-profile politicos to lend their voice to the gubernatorial election. McAuliffe himself has benefited immensely from Bill and Hillary Clinton's contributions in the form of campaign appearances and the use of their deep connections to fill out his staff.
Actress Kerry Washington and some members of the Virginia congressional delegation also attended on Sunday. Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, was expected to participate later in the evening while Vice President Biden is scheduled to join Monday.
Cuccinelli shared the stage with some of his own party's power players this weekend while crisscrossing the state by plane. He campaigned Saturday with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are also set to join him before voting concludes.
Recent polls have trended in McAuliffe's favor, although the strength of his lead has fluctuated substantially across each. For example, a Washington Post-Abt-SRBI poll released last week gave the Democrat a 12-point edge, but a Quinnipiac University survey reduced that lead to 4 percent. Further muddling the outcome has been Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, 37, who tugged away 8 or 9 percent of voters dissatisfied with the major parties, according to the Post and Quinnipiac, respectively.
In Harrisonburg on Sunday, Cuccinelli credited backlash against the Affordable Care Act, and its broken website, with providing last-minute momentum for his candidacy.
"There are a lot of things I'd love to have in a campaign but of all of them the one we've got right now may be the most important of all and that is momentum," Cuccinelli told supporters as he flew into the conservative southwest portion of the state. "This race is coming our way.
"And the other side, God bless 'em, is helping us out with that: the birthplace of presidents is happy to welcome the president of the United States onto our side of the Potomac today and to crystallize the focus of this campaign around Obamacare," he added.
Cuccinelli boasted that he was "literally the first human being" to challenge the health care law with a lawsuit as attorney general soon after it was signed into law in 2010. He has kept a laser focus on his opposition to the law, insisting, unlike his opponent McAuliffe, that if elected governor, he would reject an optional expansion of Medicaid that is being offered to states by the federal government as part of Obamacare.
The ugly and costly campaign between two flawed candidates has garnered a high level of attention from each political party as they look forward to 2016 and seek to turn the contest into a referendum on the policies of Obama. Millions of dollars from outside groups have poured into the race, especially on women's issues and gun control, in these final days.
Cuccinelli acknowledged in an interview with reporters after the rally that the money and the negative ads have made a difference.
On top of outside spending, McAuliffe has outraised Cuccinelli significantly. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, McAuliffe raised about $33 million to Cuccinelli's $21 million as of Oct, 23. The numbers have climbed even higher in the campaign's final days. "Money counts," Cuccinelli said. "The out spending that we see on television is really a difference of out of state money, so it's had an effect."
"There a reason we have this momentum and it's because of substance," Cuccinelli said.
Democrats have relentlessly attacked Cuccinelli for what they have called his "extreme" agenda on women's issues by highlighting his opposition to abortion, and tying him to a failed bill that would have mandated an ultrasound before abortion procedures could be performed.
"I have five daughters. I want them to have every opportunity that everyone else has," Cuccinelli said "They have been lying about a lot of my record they have been lying in contraception ads that have been 100 percent lies, that they know are lies.
"They've done other things to try to scare women in this race," he added.
Virginia was traditionally seen as a red state until presidential wins by Obama in 2008 and 2012 cast it into battleground territory. Now, high polling numbers for McAuliffe affirm the Old Dominion's rapidly changing demographics, particularly as its northern reaches become younger and more urban.
A Democratic win would also confirm local and national dissatisfaction with the tea party, which counts the social and fiscal conservative Cuccinelli among its champions. Sarvis' numbers, meanwhile, highlight the ongoing divisions within the Republican Party.
Despite the added scrutiny and publicity from both sides, however, the decision on who will fill the governor's mansion next year will ultimately be made by a distinct minority of people living in the commonwealth. Virginia's Board of Elections expects only 30 percent of registered voters to show up to cast their ballots.
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