VA Governor's Race: McAuliffe vs Cuccinelli, A Race to Lose Hispanics?

Posted: Apr 22 2014

-by Stewart Lawrence

It’s hard to imagine a more compelling poster boy for Republican self-destruction over immigration policy than Virginia’s current GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. At a time when Latinos in his state are surging as a social and political force, the 45-year old attorney general has done little to soften his long-standing opposition to the DREAM Act or to comprehensive immigration reform. In recent years, Cuccinelli has proudly supported the campaign to repeal birthright citizenship, which most legal observers consider a Constitutional right. He’s also voiced support for a Virginia law that would allow employers to fire foreign born workers who fail to speak English at the workplace while introducing legislation to deny unemployment benefits to these same employees under the title 'SB 339: Unemployment compensation; employee's inability to speak English at workplace is misconduct.'

Changing Demographics of Die-Hard Red State
Cuccinelli’s nativist views are popular with parts of the Virginia electorate, of course, just as they are with White voters in other states. But the Commonwealth is no longer a die-hard Red state like Arizona or Georgia. Barack Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008 and 2012, with nearly two-thirds of the Latino vote. Far-reachingdemographic changes are sweeping through the suburbs in the north, where a massive influx of liberal white Democrats and Latino immigrants (many of them Central American refugees) over the past two decades has threatened to overwhelm – or at least overshadow – traditional Republican strongholds in the south. Virginia independent voters value diversity, and in recent polls, even a majority of Republicans express strong support for fair and balanced immigration reform.

Demographic Writing on the Wall
Outgoing governor Bob McDonnell saw the demographic writing on the wall, and wisely refused to dig in his heels. In 2009, against a Democratic opponent who enjoyed strong White House political support and funding, he surprised many political observers by softening his past opposition to immigration reform and by launching anextensive outreach campaign to the state’s immigrant communities, including Latinos, many of whom had never seen a Republican candidate so up front and friendly before.   McDonnell won easily and became a role model to other white Republican gubernatorial candidates seeking to project an image of ethnic inclusion.

McAuliffe and Latinos
But Cuccinelli shows no signs of having “gone to school” on McDonnell’s success. While his Democratic opponent, former DNC chief Terry McAuliffe, has expanded his Hispanic outreach in the weeks leading up to the November 5 election -- securing big-name endorsements and running a spate of Spanish-language ads, many of them paid for by former Democratic governor Tim Kaine -- the attorney general’s done virtually nothing to connect with Latino voters. He’s even managed to alienate a number of prominent Hispanic businessmen who once backed McDonnell and might have been drawn to his free-market, small-government message. Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s recently announced support for the stalled Virginia DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to attend state colleges at the same favored rate as native-born residents. That’s likely to tilt even more Latino voters his way, leaving the GOP – and Cuccinelli -- more isolated than ever.

Latinos comprised just 4% of the Virginia electorate in 2009, and 5% in 2012, but it’s an unusually vocal constituency, And with a strong coalition of Latino advocacy groups and state and local Latino officials backing McAuliffe to the hilt, Latino voter participation may reach an astounding 8%, some observers predict. The latest statewide polls show McAuliffe with a widening single-digit lead, some of it due to the political fall-out that Republicans suffered nationally in the wake of the government shutdown.   But the race could easily tighten, and if Latino voters do turn out in force next week, their impact will be impossible to ignore.

Not Just in My Backyard
And not just in Virginia. There are other Purple states like North Carolina with fast-growing Latino immigrant populations anxious to become citizen voters and Democratic candidates eager to turn more of the nation’s political map Blue. Throw-back Republican candidates like Cuccinelli – who seem increasingly out of step not only with the public, but with the national GOP - will surely make their job easier.

-Stewart Lawrence
Stewart is a political analyst and writer for Hispanic.com, and author.

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