HERNDON, Va. — He has no experience in elective office. He founded an electric car company that failed to deliver its promise of thousands of vehicles and hundreds of jobs. By his own admission, he relishes making a buck, even if that involves leaving his crying wife and newborn son in a car to attend a fundraiser or making millions on a bankrupt fiber-optics company that left thousands jobless.

Terry McAuliffe should be losing Tuesday’s election for governor of Virginia. Instead, the Democrat is the front-runner in the only competitive gubernatorial race in the nation this year, where a Democratic victory would have national ramifications.

How could that happen? Simple: Voters dislike the other guy more.

McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Virginia Attorney General and tea party favorite Ken Cuccinelli, is seen as too conservative on issues from abortion to taxes for a rapidly changing state.

“He’s extreme,” said voter Donna Feeney, the chief financial officer for a law firm, who attended a McAuliffe campaign rally this week in the Washington suburb of Herndon.

“He wants to control everything,” said another voter, Mary Jo Ricci, a substitute teacher and self-described independent who’s turned away from Republican candidates in recent years.

In the last nine elections, the party that was holding the White House has lost the Virginia governor’s mansion. But this year, observers say, the race – which is seen as a bellwether for the 2014 and 2016 elections – indicates that Republicans, at least in some states, are headed in the wrong direction.

“This is a microcosm of what’s going on with the party across the country,” said Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who represented Virginia in the House of Representatives for more than a dozen years and supports Cuccinelli. “It may work in Texas and Utah but does not work in purple states and blue states. It’s just simple math.”

Virginia’s recent and dramatic demographic transformation has shifted its electorate from reliably Republican to deeply divided. Thousands of new residents, many of them Latino and Asian immigrants, have crowded the sprawling suburbs outside the nation’s capital, turning the state into a tossup.

Enter Cuccinelli.

A former state senator who won statewide office four years ago in a landslide, Cuccinelli, 45, is credited with being tea party before there was a tea party. He’s crusaded against Washington and challenged the status quo in Virginia.

He was the first to sue the federal government over the 2010 health care law. He sued the Environmental Protection Agency. He pushed for new restrictions on abortion clinics. He tried to investigate well-known climate scientist Michael Mann, who he said might be engaged in fraud. He told public colleges that they couldn’t pass anti-discrimination policies for gays.

McAuliffe, 56, should be a tempting target for Republican criticism. Beyond his record, there’s the fact that he has few ties to the state. He lost a 2009 bid for the Democratic nomination in part because he seemed like a carpetbagger.

He’s spent the years since paying his dues at fish fries, neighborhood parties and community college tours. Though he’s still unable to answer some questions about government and glosses over policy details, observers say he managed to overcome the hurdle of inexperience.

“He put to rest concerns that he doesn’t know the state,” said Mark Rozell, a professor at George Mason University.

Backed by an ad campaign fueled by his fundraising advantage – he’s raised $34 million to his opponent’s $20 million – McAuliffe has hammered Cuccinelli as out of the mainstream.

The nasty campaign has turned off a lot of voters. At the last debate, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” passed out air-sickness bags adorned with the candidates’ faces. As many as 1 in 10 voters are leaning toward the libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis, as an alternative, with more coming from the Republican column than the Democratic.

But largely the tide is against Cuccinelli. Voters are breaking for the Democrat for two main reasons: a strong rejection of Cuccinelli, and strong support from women for McAuliffe.