RICHMOND, Va. — In just 57 days and a wake-up, Virginia voters head to the polls to decide who will govern them for the next four years.
It sounds so close. But as any political pro or seasoned candidate can tell you, that's an eternity in electoral time.
Late August polling indicates that Democrat Terry McAuliffe has an edge over Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
But with Labor Day now past, Virginia's weary electorate is finally focused on politics. Because of that, several events — some known, others unknown, and most outside the campaigns' control — can exert enough gravitational pull to alter the trajectory of the nation's only competitive governor's race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is widely expected to win re-election in that state's race.
Two events will happen just across the Potomac.
Congress votes as early as this week on President Barack Obama's request for authority to launch punitive strikes against the Syrian government for its suspected chemical weapons attacks on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, in that country's civil war.
Should the House and Senate go along, they will likely authorize only limited air-support attacks with no U.S. troops in the country. But the attacks will rivet the country, even if there isn't a retaliatory response from Syria's allies, which include Iran and Russia.
Whatever happens could have the effect of freezing the Virginia campaign. A dozen years ago, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put the governor's race between Democrat Mark R. Warner and Republican Mark L. Earley in a deep freeze for more than a week. Candidates usually pull television attack ads that could be taken in poor taste as a nation closes ranks behind its troops. It also becomes difficult for either candidate's message to punch through wall-to-wall coverage of a military conflict.
Another congressional fight that will more directly bear on the Virginia race is the looming partisan showdown over the nation's debt ceiling. It's essentially the same question that almost paralyzed the federal government two years ago and risked throwing world markets into a tailspin. Partisan brinksmanship over whether to allow the government to borrow more money to pay off its bills went right to the deadline.
What broke the logjam in 2011 was a Faustian bargain called "sequestration," jargon for indiscriminate across-the-board cuts to military and domestic spending that were thought to be so unpalatable that both sides would compromise on a less damaging deficit-reduction plan. They didn't. The cuts took effect in March, and it's likely Congress will do nothing to change it this fall.
With sequestration a fact of life and Virginia at risk because of its concentration of military and federal contractors, each candidate claims to be the better money manager for austere times. Whether McAuliffe or Cuccinelli takes the blame depends on what how the debt limit crisis plays out, whether it damages the economy and whether one party or the other bears the greater share of blame.
For months, Cuccinelli has been warning of a train wreck when enrollment commences in new health care exchanges created by the Democratic-passed 2010 health care overhaul. He was the first state attorney general to challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and supports repealing what he calls "Obamacare." The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law.
Such a massive intergovernmental undertaking carries inherent startup problems: a populace unfamiliar with the program, technological snafus linking state exchanges where people shop for coverage plans with a federal hub with data routed to several federal agencies, a steep learning curve not only for customers but for the "navigators" and others trained to walk them through the process.
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