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.
6. The whole McDonnell transportation tax hike mess.
But even without McDonnell’s scandal, the decision to embark on a multi-billion dollar tax hike with the support of moderate Republicans, the business community, and state Democrats as the closing chapter to his governorship had a massive and negative impact on the dynamics of this election. McDonnell’s conservative backers were side-swiped by the package – they ended up unseating some of the longest-tenured delegates in primaries over the tax hike – and Cuccinelli was put in the awkward position of criticizing the governor while McAuliffe had his back. This split the party base from the donor class in an even bigger way, and helped the NOVA dollars flow to McAuliffe in a huge way. There is no justifiable fiscally conservative basis for supporting the law McDonnell passed with Democratic support, and his decision to possibly trade away the state’s Medicaid expansion in order to get his tax hike has to be the worst bargain I’ve ever seen in ten years working on public policy.
7. Robert Sarvis gave people an outlet to vent.
I dispute the notion that Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate, is actually a spoiler in this race: every poll seems to indicate that he takes roughly equally from both candidates. But his presence gave people an outlet, and one that they didn’t have to think about too hard, as a protest vote. In Sarvis’s absence, the contrasts would be clearer between the two major party candidates. I’m still struck by the lack of knowledge of McAuliffe’s positions in the race, and that might not be the case had it been a two-man race.
8. E.W. Jackson amplified Cuccinelli’s vulnerabilities.
Cuccinelli’s decision to go to a convention instead of a primary process pushed out the execrable corporatist Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, but it also saddled him with an incredibly weak candidate on the ticket in charismatic reverend E.W. Jackson, who won thanks both to his oratorical ability and the benefits of geography (Northern Virginia candidates split the vote). A better candidate such as tech businessman Pete Snyder would’ve benefited Cuccinelli in a number of ways as a partner, but Jackson’s “yoga is of the devil” talk served to make the whole range seem more extreme.
9. The shutdown.
Virginia is a state populated increasingly by government workers, and the shutdown served to hurt Cuccinelli more than any other candidate. I don’t think it dramatically changed the race – he’d still be behind without it – but for two weeks, Cuccinelli struggled to vocalize a position on it, even dodging an appearance with Ted Cruz (who praised Cuccinelli to the hilt). The wavering was of a piece with the entire campaign, stuck running with a guy who’s always been a populist rabble rouser now trying the Tom Davis approach on for size, and finding it fit like a cheap suit.
10. The state is shifting left.
Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Jim Webb, and other statewide Democrats elected in Virginia over the past decade have all run as moderate, pro-business, social traditionalists. They have embraced NASCAR and guns, talked a good game on crime, and run ads that made them seem like blue dogs or even moderate Republicans. McAuliffe has done nothing of the kind: he has run as an explicit and aggressive social liberal, including a last minute Bloomberg-backed push arguing for the same gun policies which resulted in the Colorado recalls. Emboldened by the fact he won’t be running for re-election, McAuliffe will do whatever he can to push the state’s policies further left, turning it from purple into blue.
I differ on some of the points mentioned here. First, while Cuccinelli failed to articulate a position during the shutdown, Virginia voters blamed Obama and congressional Republicans equally. Additionally, the narrative changed violently from the “GOP is dead” to the Obamacare disaster once everyone found out that our president — the media savant — couldn’t build a functioning website.
Second, 2016 will be only one time that he’ll try to shift the state blue. McAuliffe’s sole job – and probably the reason why he ran – is to deliver the Old Dominion for Hillary if she runs. Given the demographics, how Northern Virginia carries the state, and the massive gender gap among unmarried women, in a presidential year with Hillary on the ticket, it won’t be a tough sell.
Yesterday, I ruffled some feathers, including those of some very prominent conservatives, with my post saying the RNC did their best to help Cuccinelli in Virginia. Yet I never endorsed their plan. I never said it was successful, nor did I say that they worked hard for Ken. Nevertheless, it drew condemnation that I was a shill for the RNC, and subsequently landed me in RINO jail. Nevertheless, some criticism of the RNC is warranted. After all, they doled out $1.5 million to Christie, who was going to win anyway, and had minority voters open to vote for him, according to NRO’s Jim Geraghty.
Geraghty also noted that the $3 million the RNC spent in Virginia on the precinct model could’ve been spent on media ads, which was an area that McAuliffe dominated in this race. At the same time, he listed more reasons not to blame the RNC.
-Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign was always likely to be outspent by Terry McAuliffe, but he and his campaign had to try to keep the margin as close as possible. Instead, the gap became gargantuan, $15 million. To his credit, Cuccinelli raised only slightly less than McDonnell raised four years ago, $20 million to McDonnell’s $21 million.
-If the polling had shown a closer race, the RNC undoubtedly would have committed more money. But only two out of 25 polls conducted in Virginia since mid-September showed McAuliffe leading by less than 5 points. Most had the Democrat leading by 7 to 9 points.
-The $9 million that the RNC spent on behalf of Bob McDonnell in 2009 was part of the Michael Steele’s big-borrowing, big-spending era, that took the committee from $23 million in the bank at the beginning of 2009 (mostly from transfers from unused funds of the McCain-Palin campaign) to $22 million in debt. Today the RNC has no debt.
-The RNC is a “hard money” institution, meaning there are limits on how much a donor can give. Virginia’s laws limiting donations and activity is much more lax, meaning both Cuccinelli and the state party were free to accept much larger donations. At any point, any wealthy Republican billionaire could have written a check for $10 million helping out Cuccinelli. For example, Bill Clinton wrote a check for $100,000 to McAuliffe.
-Next year, the RNC faces a gargantuan lift. There are a good half-dozen or so competitive Senate races against Democrat incumbents(Alaska, Arkansas, perhaps Colorado, Louisiana, possibly Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, possibly Oregon, possibly Virginia) open seat Senate races in Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and West Virginia, and potentially vulnerable Senate incumbents to defend in Kentucky and Maine. Then they have competitive gubernatorial races against Democrat incumbents in Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota and perhaps a few others, open seat gubernatorial races in Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Nebraska and vulnerable gubernatorial incumbents to defend in Florida, Maine, Michigan, possibly Nevada, possibly New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And then there are the House races. Put simply, there are only so many races where the RNC can commit $5 million to 10 million.
- According to OpenSecrets.org, the DNC spent nothing or (depending on some late filing of forms) next to nothing on McAuliffe.
Well, that last point just shows you that McAuliffe is unrivaled as a fundraiser, but Cuccinelli’s campaign did feel abandoned in the end. Even former Governor Jim Gilmore, who was also the RNC’s chair, told Larry O’Connor of WMAL this morning that the RNC clearly favored Christie. And that the night he was elected governor in 1997, the RNC chairman was present.
At the same time, some have argued that the precinct model was somewhat successful. McAuliffe’s win didn’t translate down ticket. Republicans in the House of Delegates races outperformed Cuccinelli and kept their supermajority, while Mark Obenshain is still alive in the race for attorney general. So, we could classify the ground game as semi-successful. It could’ve been worse. There were 55 contested seats last night.
THE ROB SARVIS EFFECT
I won’t lie: third-party candidates can be annoying. George H.W. blamed Ross Perot for his defeat in 1992; he’s still mad about it to this day. So, it may seem like Rob Sarvis killed Cuccinelli’s chance to become governor, but the numbers just don’t add up.
In the counties that Cuccinelli won [he won 90], Sarvis received 7 percent of the vote (71,146 votes), while in the counties that McAuliffe won [he won 43], Sarvis received 6.1 percent of the vote (74,149 votes). Sarvis actually received the majority of his votes from counties that were overwhelmingly won by Terry McAuliffe. The dynamic is the same if we look at the average Sarvis support in each county (as opposed to spreading out all the Sarvis votes across the counties and calculating percentage support that way). Sarvis received an average of 6.9 percent of the vote in each Cuccinelli county and 6.3 percent of the vote in each McAuliffe county.
Concerning the ideological split, Sarvis received the largest bloc of votes from people in groups that are traditionally liberal.
Sarvis received only 3 percent of votes from self-described conservatives, but he garnered the support of 7 percent of liberals (McAuliffe won this demographic by 85 points) and 10 percent of moderates, the largest ideological bloc in the state (McAuliffe won this group by 22 percent). Liberals were more than twice as likely as conservatives to support Sarvis.
Granted, an Obama bundler was exposed as working with Sarvis, but given his stance on the issues, he’s pretty much a liberal Democrat. This shouldn’t be surprising, and in the end didn’t really do much to influence the outcome of the race.
So, as I’ve said before, a loss by over 54,946 votes – or roughly 2.5 percent – doesn’t mean Cuccinelli lost because of social issues. The more moderate wings of the party, who view such issues as anathema, need to understand that these were the issues that turned Cuccinelli into a homophobic, woman-hating nut job, which he isn’t. There can be no avoiding these issues anymore, especially since the Democrats have used War on Women strategies to kill two Republican candidates in statewide races back-to-back. We need to attack. The Bob McDonnell way of just focusing on taxes and the economy didn’t work here when the other side just wanted to talk about divorce, or something. Additionally, the Second Amendment has proven to be a winning issue for conservatives, but then comes the money issue.
Dear “don’t talk about social issues” GOPers. McAuliffe won because he wedged them. Cucc/party didn’t push back. #VAGov
— Dan Isett (@DanIsett) November 6, 2013
Cuccinelli simply didn’t have the funds, which rehashes the argument of money power vs. people power. Ted Cruz was able to win the primary, the run-off, and the general election based on the power of social media, bloggers, and the grassroots. Why didn’t that happen here? Additionally, if Cuccinelli needed money, what was preventing him from courting wealthy donors to write big checks for him a la Bill Clinton?
It’s possibly due to the polls, which were all wrong. The McAuliffe landslide didn’t happen. Again, we have another example as to why we should view polls more skeptically, or outright dismiss them if it’s for a cause we staunchly support. The RNC allegedly pulled the plug on financial support on Oct. 1. The Republican Governors Association initially actually gave more money to Cuccinelli – $8.3 million – than to Bob McDonnell earlier this summer, but that dried up when McAuliffe maintained his 7-9 point lead in the polls last July. In all, some things were out of Cuccinelli’s control, but his reluctance to fight on the social issues, his lack of fundraising, and the Republican establishment’s premature departure didn’t help.
At the same time, all is not lost. The Republican supermajority is in the House of Delegates, which means Terry’s pro-Colorado gun control agenda is DOA. Yet, we still have a sleaze bag as governor, but one who will hopefully be contained. Lastly, the devastating effect of Obamacare is what eviscerated McAuliffe’s supposed 7-9 point lead over Cuccinelli. That bodes well for Republicans in the 2014 elections. Romney won 227 congressional districts in 2012; there are only a handful of House races that are competitive; and the six seats we need to win back the Senate happen to be in states where Romney won by 10+ points or more.
Yes, it was a disappointing night, but it’s time to shake off the loss and prepare for the next battle.