Republican Ken Cuccinelli became a national conservative star as Virginia's attorney general by leading the legal fight to declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional all the way to the Supreme Court. Now he's running for governor, and he's making health care the defining issue of his campaign.
As the federal rollout continues to be plagued by website problems and renewed criticism over discontinued low-coverage individual plans, Cuccinelli told his supporters Monday, "We need people to know Nov 5th in Virginia is a referendum on ObamaCare." His latest ad slams Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe for wanting to "EXPAND OBAMACARE," and closes by saying "to stop ObamaCare and higher taxes, there's only one choice." Outside conservative groups are also running ads excoriating McAuliffe as a supporter of ObamaCare.
Virginia voters appear to agree with Cuccinelli that health care is one of the most important issues of the campaign. The Washington Post poll conducted October 24-27 asked likely voters how important eight different issues were to determining their vote. Along with job creation and education, health care tied for first, with 72 percent saying those issues were "very important."
And yet, in that same poll, Cuccinelli is losing by 12 points.
In fact, Cuccinelli is losing in every single poll that's been taken in this race save for one in early July, suggesting that his defeat is a near-certainty.
Republicans are clinging to a bit of hope after a Quinnipiac poll released this week showed him only down by 4 points. But that poll only shows a minor tightening — within the margin-of-error — relative to the previous Quinnipiac poll from earlier in the month. Further, both Quinnipiac and the Washington Post polls peg Cuccinelli's level of support around a meager 40 percent. And both polls show a third-party candidate in the race drawing support away from both major party candidates, which suggests if the also-ran fades in the stretch it won't upend the stable trajectory of the race to date. (The Huffington Post synthesis of all the polls to date estimates McAuliffe's lead to be a healthy eight points.)
Why isn't health care helping Cuccinelli in the swing state of Virginia, despite all the very real problems ObamaCare has been facing this month? After all, the candidates' positions on health care couldn't make the choice any clearer. Cuccinelli wants the law repealed. McAuliffe says "it's time to implement the law" by accepting federal money so the state can expand Medicaid coverage for the working poor, and having Virginia establish its own health insurance exchange.
The simplest answer is: McAuliffe's position is shared by a whole lot of Virginians.
A plurality of 49 percent supported ObamaCare in a different Quinnipiac poll taken October 2-8. Voters said McAuliffe would do a "better job" on health care by a nine-point margin over Cuccinelli.
Of course, now that the shutdown is over and the program's rollout is suffering significant flak, you might expect those numbers to worsen for McAuliffe. But this week's Washington Post poll finds voters now trust McAuliffe to do a "better job" on health care by whopping a 21-point margin.
There is another plausible reason: Republicans still refuse to bolster their criticism of ObamaCare with serious policy alternatives.
Despite Cuccinelli's insistence that the election is a referendum on ObamaCare, his website fails to include a page dedicated to what he would do about health care. Instead, he buries a few paragraphs on health care on his overall "Issues" page, which offers several conservative buzzwords but no actual policy specifics. Meanwhile, McAuliffe spells out his health care agenda in a seven-page white paper.
Plan beats no plan.
Despite all the troubles the Obama administration has had in getting ObamaCare off the ground, what's been clear all month is this: Whatever misgivings and uncertainties persist, millions of people are going to Healthcare.gov and want the new system to work. But only Democrats, and a very small number of Republican governors, are showing a commitment to making the system work.
This should be a wake-up call to Republicans who thought the shaky Affordable Care Act rollout would shred belief in governmental competence, undermine liberalism, justify conservative obsession with repeal, and infuse Republicans with fresh momentum.
Because as this Virginia race shows, without plausible Republican policy alternatives, Democrats will able to ride out the inevitable hiccups that come with implementing new government programs and avoid any mass anti-government backlash. Simply hating on ObamaCare has not, is not, and will not be a potent political weapon.