Last night’s loss to Democrat Terry McAuliffe was tough to swallow. The infinitely better man, Republican Ken Cuccinelli, lost by 54,946 votes. Yet, it wasn’t because he was “too conservative”; that’s the one thing I don’t want to hear concerning why he lost. Simply, Ken Cuccinelli ran a bad campaign. For one thing, he failed to fight hard for the issues that have worked in his favor. This shift away from the social issues allowed McAuliffe to run with them at will – and define Cuccinelli before he could do so himself.
Case in point, the anti-sodomy fiasco. It’s standard practice for Virginia prosecutors to use this law when it comes to bringing sex offenders to justice. Is that controversial? Is that extreme? After that, the McAuliffe squad hit Ken for being “too extreme” on contraception, divorce, abortion, and climate change. There are many more reasons why this campaign failed, but it’s not because Ken Cuccinelli holds “extreme” views.
1. Cuccinelli got killed fundraising.
Say what you will for McAuliffe’s sleazy car-dealer approach to politics: what turns off voters works with the donor class, and boy does it. McAuliffe convinced liberal donors to pour millions into the state in negative ads, and the drumbeat hitting Cuccinelli has been non-stop and impossible to avoid for the past three months on the airwaves. What’s more, with the exception of the RGA, Cuccinelli largely lacked the kind of support that has flowed from national organizations into the state in the past. In 2009, the RNC spent more than 9 million in Virginia to elect Bob McDonnell – this year, they’ve spent around 3 million. Cuccinelli expected he’d become a national election – he did for the Democrats, but not the Republicans.
2. Cuccinelli’s campaign (manager) sucked. A smart campaign would’ve taken steps to mitigate the donor advantage, particularly in Northern Virginia. Cuccinelli has been outspent in each race he’s ever run, but the truth is that while the party’s moderates backed him up (Romney, Jeb, and others all fundraised for him), the NOVA business community didn’t. A smarter campaign would’ve made it harder for McAuliffe to get this support early on – but a campaign that gets shaken up two months out from Election Day isn’t a smart one, typically.
3. Cuccinelli tried to tone down the things that actually worked for him in the past.
There’s a valid point in Maggie Gallagher’s report here about social issues and the Republican Party: essentially, that the talk of a truce is impossible, and that candidates would be better off defending themselves and even going on offense as opposed to fighting a defensive war. Cuccinelli’s decision to run largely as a candidate in the Bob McDonnell model – one who talked about jobs and taxes, not guns and taxpayer-funded abortion – was a decision consistent with the conventional wisdom about the state, but the gap between it and his background and resume as a socially conservative populist created real problems. The War on Women rhetoric has now worked in back to back elections in Virginia, against a moderate Mormon and a conservative Catholic, and combatting it in future elections will require something more than just not talking about it, which cedes the conversation to the media and the left.
4. Cuccinelli had the baggage of his past fights which the left used very well.
This is true of Cuccinelli’s fights on marriage, abortion, climate, but particularly true of the issue of his defense of a sodomy statute on the books in Virginia. I doubt Cuccinelli ever realized how big of a liability this would be, but again, he’d have been better off defending himself vocally than shying away from it. Gay Republicans openly compared Cuccinelli to David Duke, and the indication that Cuccinelli wants to go around rounding up people for engaging in consensual sex was ubiquitous to any conversation about him on social media. Of course, in my county, there are nine convicted child abusers and sex offenders who were convicted under the statute, and I’d like to know which ones of them deserve to go off the books… but that defense was never offered. The irony is that Cuccinelli is personally less socially conservative than Bob McDonnell (remember that Regent thesis?), who accounts for numbers 5 and 6.
5. The whole McDonnell and Star Scientific scandal.
Cuccinelli’s “run like Bob 2.0” strategy presumed that the popular governor would be on the trail every day backing up his attorney general. This strategy exploded when McDonnell, a pure as the driven snow boy scout (indeed, the off-putting thing about McDonnell for me has always been that he’s a little too perfect – the hair never out of place). McDonnell was so popular, in fact, that even after the donor scandals that the Washington Post has beat the drum on for months, he’s still more popular than Cuccinelli or McAuliffe, and probably would be winning a re-election race right now if Virginia law allowed him to run. The scandal will probably just result in a fine and a settlement for failure to report gifts, but it effectively removed McDonnell from the race and dealt a psychic blow to him and his supporters that absolutely impacted the election.