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What the Virginia Governor's Race Means for 2014 and Beyond

The Virginia gubernatorial election sends a message to the rest of the country about how to win elections in America today -- and how to lose them.

Last night, voters elected Terry McAuliffe as the next governor of the Commonwealth. And they rejected Ken Cuccinelli, whose extreme anti-women's health agenda was a defining issue throughout the campaign.

Let's not forget: This was a year, a state and a race that were all but set up to hand the governor's office to a Republican. It had been decades since the party holding the White House won the Virginia governor's race. From the beginning, we knew this election was going to be an uphill battle for Terry McAuliffe -- a fact that was confirmed by polls as late as this spring when a May 2013 Washington Post poll showed Terry McAuliffe trailing Ken Cuccinelli -- and essentially tied among women.

But as Cuccinelli's positions on restricting access to birth control, defunding Planned Parenthood, and ending access to safe and legal abortion became clearer, the gender gap widened. At one point, McAuliffe led Cuccinelli by an astounding 24 points among women. And it wasn't just women. Terry McAuliffe was elected by a broad cross-section of voters who believe that we're all better off when women and their doctors -- not politicians -- are the ones making medical decisions.

This is getting to be a pretty familiar story.

In 2012, Mitt Romney promised to end access to safe and legal abortion, "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, and roll back the historic gains for women under the Affordable Care Act. The result: President Obama -- who ran proudly on his record of standing with women -- was elected with the largest gender gap in the history of polling.

In the end, women won this race for Terry McAuliffe. He won women by nine points -- matching Obama's 2012 advantage with Virginia women, beating his 2008 advantage with Virginia women by two points and flipping Republican Governor Bob McDonnell's eight-point advantage with women that propelled him to victory in 2009. Notably, 20 percent of Virginia voters said abortion was the most important issue in determining their vote, and McAuliffe won 59 percent of those votes.

Among the rising Virginia electorate, McAuliffe won overwhelmingly, winning among unmarried women by 42 points, and among African American women by 84 points. Ken Cuccinelli's opposition to affordable birth control, access to health care at Planned Parenthood and safe and legal abortion cost him the election. Noticing a trend?

Planned Parenthood advocacy and political organizations had been fighting Ken Cuccinelli's attacks on women's health for years, and knew this race would be a bellwether. Rather than nominating Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, the Virginia GOP shut down the normal primary process and allowed a small group of Republican insiders to nominate the most extreme ticket of any major party in recent history.

Just like in 2012, we made it a top priority to educate women about where the candidates stood on women's health and rights. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Planned Parenthood Votes and Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC went "all in" on the Virginia governor's race, investing $2.4 million and targeting 200,000 key voters. Our supporters and volunteers knocked on more than 90,000 doors, made some 26,000 calls and rallied outside key electoral events. The Action Fund sent mail to more than 155,000 households, launched KeepKenOut.com to spread the word online and Planned Parenthood Votes spent over a million dollars on television and radio to be sure Cuccinelli could not hide from his record.

Unsurprisingly, the more women learned about Ken Cuccinelli's positions on issues that affect their lives, the less likely they were to vote for him.

Today, on November 6th, here's what we have to show for our work: Terry McAuliffe has pledged to stand with women like a "brick wall" when our rights come under attack. He supports access to safe and legal abortion, affordable health care and ran as a proud friend of Planned Parenthood. As for Ken Cuccinelli -- I don't think we'll be hearing from him for a while.

Keeping Ken Cuccinelli out of the Virginia governor's office is an enormous victory for women all over the country -- and should be a cautionary tale for politicians everywhere. Not surprisingly, groups like Susan B. Anthony List, who want to restrict women's rights are already saying Cuccinelli lost because he didn't run proudly on his extreme anti-women's health agenda. That's kind of like saying that when you realize you're driving off a cliff, the answer is to floor it. 

But most people will see the lesson of the election clearly: You can't win an election without women, and most women just aren't going to vote for someone who wants to strip away our rights, and take us back to the 1950s.

This shouldn't be a radical idea -- and thanks to thousands of volunteers and millions of voters in Virginia, it's one step closer to becoming a universal truth.

"Women's Health: A Winning Issue" by Dawn Laguens originally appeared on the Huffington Post. You can find the article here.

Tags: Ken Cuccinelli, Terry McAuliffe, Virginia, Virginia Governor's Race

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