The battle for political control of Virginia began in earnest this week when the Democratic Party completed its ticket, and both parties are scrambling to convince an increasingly purple state that they're not the ideologues their opponents claim they are.
Democrats nominated Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk for lieutenant governor and Sen. Mark Herring of Loudoun County for attorney general to join gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe on the fall ballot. The three candidates have already demonstrated they'll run as a united ticket in hopes of getting the party to coalesce around McAuliffe, who will spend the summer energizing the Democratic base as much as he's appealing to moderates.
The same can't be said for the Republican ticket. The GOP diehards are firmly behind Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's gubernatorial aspirations, and the party faithful gathered at a convention last month to nominate Chesapeake pastor E.W. Jackson to be his lieutenant governor running mate and Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg for attorney general.
But Cuccinelli and Obenshain have since distanced themselves from Jackson, whose controversial statements on abortion, homosexuals and even yoga have drawn national attention and are forcing him to run his own campaign independent of theirs.
But Democrats will continue to lump Jackson with the others in hopes of underscoring their message that the Republican ticket is outside the mainstream. Republicans have responded by painting McAuliffe, Northam and Herring as tax-raising, union-loving liberals.
With attacks like that flying on both sides, longtime Virginia political observer Bob Holsworth said the election season is shaping up to be a "race to the bottom."
McAuliffe has tried to win over voters in the political center by building support and earning endorsements from within the business community and with some of the state's former Republican leaders. The strategy is intended to highlight that Cuccinelli has so far struggled to pick up the support of deep-pocketed Northern Virginia Republican business leaders, a big reason McAuliffe has twice as much money as his opponent.
"He can't trail by a 2-1 margin as the race goes on," Holsworth said. "And that is where McAuliffe's entrance into the business community is reaping some benefits for him."
Neither ticket includes a candidate from the western part of the state, and half of the candidates on the ballot are from Northern Virginia, including both Cuccinelli and McAuliffe. Democrats will have an especially hard time making inroads in the once dependably Democratic southwest and southside Virginia, said Holsworth, and they're likely to concede the rural voters to Republicans.
"Democrats are going to rely on suburbia rather than trying to carve votes out of rural areas," he said. "You're not going to see 'Sportsman for McAuliffe' like you saw with [former Gov. Mark] Warner. Will the college students come out? Will the moderate single women come out? The demographics have changed, but can the Democrats mobilize the vote?"