Hard Lessons in Virginia

by Jim Geraghty
Ken Cuccinelli’s rough ride may have lessons big and small for the GOP.

Barring one of the great all-time upsets, Terry McAuliffe will beat Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia’s governor’s race today. If that result comes to pass, it will reflect some hard lessons for the candidate and the state party:

The first and most basic lesson for future Republican candidates: Quit your day jobs. Ten of Virginia’s previous eleven elected attorneys general have run for governor; nine of them resigned upon the launch of their campaigns, usually with about a year left in their term.

Cuccinelli didn’t do that. In a letter to his staff, he attributed his decision to remain in office to the fact that “the people of Virginia trusted me to be their attorney general, and I intend to give them four full years.”

The editorial board of the Washington Post, already one of Cuccinelli’s most consistent critics, declared that his decision not to resign “further politicize[s] his office, adding a partisan cast to every significant move it makes.” The editorial board’s first passion is denouncing conservative Republicans who have the audacity to win office within their circulation area, but had they actually aimed to persuade Cuccinelli, they might have simply pointed out that remaining as attorney general hurt his odds of winning.

Asked about the time squeeze and juggling the duties in a July interview, Cuccinelli said his campaign staff knew that his duties as attorney general always came first. The prioritization was noble but ultimately a mistake. Running for statewide office, especially when running against a legendary fundraiser like McAuliffe, is a full-time job. 

As of Friday, Cuccinelli raised $19.7 million; McAuliffe raised $34.4 million. You cannot get outraised by $15 million and hope to win a statewide race.

As a result, Cuccinelli lost the air war by a wide margin:

Outside groups did what they could for Cuccinelli, but liberal or anti-Cuccinelli groups outspent them considerably. Four of the top five groups running television ads were targeting Cuccinelli:

Note that the Democratic Governors Association focused all of its efforts on McAuliffe, and did not spend any money in New Jersey, where Democrat Barbara Buono always trailed Republican incumbent Chris Christie, while the Republican Governors Association spent $1.7 million helping Christie. The Republican Governors Association spent $8 million helping Cuccinelli, and the DGA spent $6.5 million. 

The McAuliffe strategy was predictable — and predicted. Cuccinelli in fact publicly asserted that his rival’s attempt to demonize him as an extremist would fail.

“They’re turning more and more to a straight negative assault that revolves heavily around social issues,” Cuccinelli said back in July. “When you don’t have anything else, I understand that, but it isn’t particularly constructive and doesn’t really tell Virginians what [McAuliffe] wants to do if elected, and I think that wears on people. I think if he tries to run a whole race on that, we’ll win.”

Ultimately, he was wrong.

McAuliffe’s campaign did feature a simple theme: “Republicans like Ken Cuccinelli are horrible people.” That may seem like an exaggeration, but McAuliffe has run a disciplined campaign that began by demonizing his opponent, moved on to demonizing his opponent, and then finished by demonizing his opponent. The most recent Washington Post poll found that “almost two-thirds of McAuliffe supporters say theirs will be a vote against Cuccinelli, rather than for McAuliffe.”

The end result is an electorate with a strong distaste for Cuccinelli and the GOP nominee running particularly weak among members of his own party. That produced a small but steady fraction of self-identified Republicans backing McAuliffe.

But it also meant another small but steady chunk will help fuel Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis to the most successful third-party candidacy in a statewide race in Virginia in two decades. (Independent Marshall Coleman won 11.4 percent in the 1994 Senate race between Oliver North and incumbent Democrat Chuck Robb.)

Traditionally, third-party and independent candidates amount to afterthoughts and asterisks in Virginia. As University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato notes: “Aside from Henry Howell’s independent run in 1973 (49.3%), no independent or third-party gubernatorial candidate has done better than Russ Potts’ 2.2% in 2005 in the modern era of Virginia politics (dating back to the start of true two-party competition in 1969).” But Sarvis has won a foothold in the race — and likely at Cuccinelli’s expense.

Quinnipiac reports that “Democrats go 93–1 percent for McAuliffe, with 3 percent for Sarvis, while Republicans go 85–5 percent for Cuccinelli, with 7 percent for Sarvis.”

Pollsters at Christopher Newport University find a very similar split — 93 percent of Democrats for McAuliffe, 1 percent for Cuccinelli, 3 percent for Sarvis; only 80 percent of Republicans back Cuccinelli, while 7 percent back McAuliffe and 8 percent back Sarvis.

Hampton University’s final poll found that among self-identified Democrats, “McAuliffe has 85 percent, Sarvis has 5 percent and Cuccinelli has 6 percent,” among Republicans, “Cuccinelli has 76 percent, McAuliffe has 7 percent and Sarvis has 11 percent.”

It’s not clear if Sarvis’s base of support was ever amenable to Cuccinelli. The Washington Post asked Sarvis supporters if their preferred candidate were not on the ballot whom they would prefer, and 53 percent chose Democrat McAuliffe, and 42 percent chose Cuccinelli.

But Christopher Newport University found quite different results in their sub-sample of Sarvis voters, with 37 percent saying they would be more likely to support Cuccinelli, only 17 percent McAuliffe, and 38 percent saying they wouldn’t vote if Sarvis wasn’t on the ballot.  Their Sarvis voters prefer the Democrat, 45–29, in the lieutenant gubernatorial race, and the Republican, 66–22, in the attorney-general race.

Undoubtedly, one faction of Sarvis’s supporters are Republican voters who found Cuccinelli an unappealing candidate, but it would probably be erroneous to conclude a more libertarian-leaning Republican candidate would have absorbed all of Sarvis’s votes. Sarvis has faced questions as to how much his views align with traditional libertarian thinking, and may represent more of a non-ideological “none of the above” option in this race. In the Christopher Newport poll, 68 percent said they were voting for him “as a form of protest, to show dissatisfaction with the two other candidates.”

Finally, McAuliffe’s “straight negative assault” is probably assisted by the problems of the GOP  nationally. As the Post survey found:

The Republican Party’s image has reached record lows in several national polls, and the new survey of Virginia voters confirms those trends.

The survey found that 65 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable view of the national Republican Party and 57 percent look unfavorably on the Virginia GOP. Meanwhile, bare majorities of voters say they see both the national and Virginia Democratic Party favorably.

There has been a rapid deterioration in the national Republican Party’s image among Virginians. In a May survey, the negative views of the national GOP outnumbered the positive ones by 18 percentage points. Today, that margin has expanded to 33 points.

As noted above, Virginia holds statewide elections for three offices in its off-year elections: governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. Ticket-splitting is not that unusual. In 2005, Democrat Tim Kaine won the governor’s race, 51.7 percent to 45.9 percent, while Republican Bill Bolling won the lieutenant governor’s race by one point and Bob McDonnell won the attorney general’s race by one-tenth of a point. In 2001, Democrat Mark Warner won the governor’s election with 52 percent of the vote and Tim Kaine won the lieutenant governor’s race with 50.3 percent of the vote. But Republican Jerry Kilgore won the attorney general’s race in a landslide, with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Given the history of ticket-splitting, tonight’s results could illuminate whether the electorate’s mood is more accurately described as anti-Republican or anti-Cuccinelli. It is conceivable that one of the down-ticket Republicans wins tens or even hundreds of thousands more votes than Cuccinelli. The GOP’s candidate for lieutenant governor, E. W. Jackson, is every bit as socially conservative as Cuccinelli and has attracted his share of controversy, but has been the target of less advertising.

For much of this year, Republican attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain has run even with or slightly ahead of Democrat Mark Herring. In the final two weeks of the campaign, Herring has run ads similar to McAuliffe’s, accusing his rival of opposing abortion in cases of rape and incest and an intent to ban most forms of birth control.

Terry McAuliffe succeeded in “Todd-Akin-izing” his Republican rival over the summer and fall; we will see if Herring can do the same in two weeks, without a $15 million spending advantage.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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