Was Ken Cuccinelli’s electoral loss to Terry McAuliffe in Virginia a major victory for the Left’s faux “war on women” strategy? Pollster Kellyanne Conway, president of the Polling Company, Inc./WomanTrend, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what happened last Tuesday and its implications beyond November 2013.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: How they wish. The most common attack against Ken Cuccinelli — fueled by millions of dollars and the ubiquitous refrain “he’s too extreme for Virginia” — was that he was anti–birth control, anti-divorce, anti-abortion, and anti-woman. All that, and he lost by just 2.5 percent. The “War on Women” scare tactics actually took a beating on Election Day 2013. The pro-choice Republican candidate in New York City and the pro-choice Democratic female candidate in New Jersey got hammered. Pro-life governor Chris Christie was reelected in deep blue New Jersey with 57 percent of the female vote.
MSNBC is one in a long line of media sources that never bothered to correctly report that as attorney general Cuccinelli opposed the ultrasound mandate, which was also never signed into law. [The proposed bill would have required each community to follow the “standard medical practice in the community” for an ultrasound.]
But Ken did little to defend himself against the onslaught, so silence became acquiescence. He missed an opportunity to hang the Scarlet A of Abortion around McAuliffe’s neck. Most pro-choice Virginians would find the “abortion, anyone, anytime, anywhere” views of Obama-Clinton-McAuliffe “extreme.” They might have been appalled to learn that their new governor supports late-term and sex-selective abortions, as well as taxpayer-funded abortions, and that he has no regard for what nonpartisan scientists say about fetal pain . . . had they known.
Cuccinelli lost because he was vastly outspent, had a Republican governor on the sidelines and a third-party candidate on the ballot, and an “October surprise” in the government shutdown; he allowed the Star Scientific scandal to last too long, took too long to find his voice against Obamacare, lacked a single cohesive, memorable message (like “Bob’s for Jobs” in 2009 or “End the Car Tax” in 1993), and failed to push back at the caricature of him created by the Left. The better campaign won, although certainly not the better candidate or the better human being.
LOPEZ: Could Ken Cuccinelli have won women?
CONWAY: Yes, or at least more of them than he did. Women look for a combination of competence, connection, and credibility. They prefer positive solutions to negative slights. They also are pro-incumbent, but even though Governor McDonnell’s favorability ratings were higher than McAuliffe’s or Cuccinelli’s heading into Election Day, he was disabled from touting his economic record on the trail and urging voters to continue in that vein.
Our written advice to the campaign about winning women, starting last winter, included the recommendation that he 1) address everyday affordability and long-term financial security; 2) run hard against Obamacare, since Ken was the first in the nation to sue over it and women are the Chief Health-Care Officers of their families; 3) show Ken’s work as attorney general on sex trafficking and social justice, like freeing a man who had been wrongly imprisoned for 27 years and then giving him a job; 4) run as the “education governor,” and; 5) explain his position on abortion and expose McAuliffe as the true extremist on the issue.
Ken Cuccinelli won among married women (50 percent to 42 percent) and white women (54 percent to 36 percent). The nagging questions to confront are: Could Cuccinelli have won unmarried women, or African Americans? The answer to those questions are the same as they are for most Republican candidates: probably not. The GOP could start by listening to those of us who have worked to attract these groups and then transfer that knowledge to political engagement. One thing to note is that the gender gap for Cuccinelli overall was nine points, compared with 13 points for Romney in Virginia last year. And the “War on Women” slop was on eight cylinders against Ken.
LOPEZ: Was he just a flawed candidate?
CONWAY: Ken Cuccinelli has many more perceived flaws than actual shortcomings. But that’s politics. Voters process the information and images they are presented with. The job of a campaign is to define its candidate. Create those impressions and images before the opposition does. In too many ways, Cuccinelli ’13 resembled Romney ’12 in message (jobs, jobs). It failed both times.
He had many strengths and many weaknesses heading into this election cycle. The weaknesses or flaws that people claim, such as his social-conservative record and tough-guy approach, are the same strengths that put him in position to become governor in the first place, and allowing him to secure the nomination and rise in prominence in the party as a state senator representing a Democratic-leaning county (Fairfax). Consider the litany of bad luck he endured this cycle:
A scandal-ridden incumbent governor who could not campaign for his potential successor
A government shutdown that personally affected many voters
A sitting lieutenant governor still bitter over an inter-party feud who took potshots at Cuccinelli all campaign long
Off-the-mark public polling that convinced donors and outside organizations to sit on their hands during the last crucial two weeks
A libertarian candidate on the ballot who, it was revealed this week, was bankrolled by an Obama donor.
Despite those circumstances, Cuccinelli lost by only two to three points. There are a thousand “what-if” scenarios that you can play, and many of those involve Ken Cuccinelli’s winning, perceived flaws and all. It is pretty remarkable, though, that what happened in Virginia in 2013 has effectively removed two candidates from presidential contention, McDonnell and Cuccinelli.
LOPEZ: Had there been another week, given the Obamacare rollout disaster, could Cuccinelli have won?
CONWAY: Yes. Clearly, Obamacare was a toxic drip for McAuliffe that he could do little about. Obama himself never mentioned Obamacare when he campaigned in Virginia two days before the election! Another week is not only seven more days of Healthcare.gov incompetence; it’s also another seven days’ distance from the impact of the shutdown. Federal workers who were furloughed all received back pay, and the impact on the election diminished with every day. So yes, Cuccinelli could have won with another week.
Still, had Ken not lost his larynx on Obamacare, he might have been able to pull it off without the extra week. Many of us are scratching our heads over how the man who was the first to sue over Obamacare years earlier was nearly silent about it for most of October. October 1 should have been the first day of five weeks’ worth of him reminding Virginians that he had been the Paul Revere of Obamacare from the get-go. He always knew it could not work or was built on lies, and that it would never reach the shores of Virginia with him as governor. By the time he returned to the issue, the critics were many.
LOPEZ: Without another week, could a Chris Christie deployment have made some or all the difference?
CONWAY: Sure. Governor Christie will be the most sought-after Republican for those seeking office in 2014. It could have started in 2013. Ironically, he is next in line to head the Republican Governors Association, an organization that now will not have Cuccinelli as a member. It’s only a 40-minute flight from Trenton, N.J., to Arlington; how great of an image would it have been to have Obama and Christie, or Clinton and Christie, facing off in the same region at the same time?
Governor Christie could have come to Northern Virginia, raised $300K, and appealed to women and independents. He also could have said — as only he can! — McAuliffe is a loose-with-the-truth huckster who should not be given the keys to the Commonwealth.
I respect that Christie, my governor, had his own race to run, but he won by 22 points. Rather than lay too much of this on his shoulders, it seems the larger Republican establishment ought to rethink why they passed on the race, thinking either that this race was lost prematurely or believing the Left’s caricature of Ken or bogus polls about the margin. Now they can live with Governor Terry McAuliffe.
LOPEZ: What are the essential lessons of this race?
CONWAY: There are a few:
Obamacare is poison. The race closed in the last two weeks because that became the focus of the race. When President Obama himself came to campaign for McAuliffe, he didn’t mention his hallmark legislation. Republicans won in 2010 by running against Obamacare but got away from that in 2012 by nominating the author of Romneycare. Now 2014 offers a great opportunity to get back on message.
The “War on Women” has run its course. Barbara Buono used the same book as McAuliffe and lost by 22 points; Joe Lhota ran away from the Republican-party label and won only 24 percent of the vote for mayor of New York City. Cuccinelli spent much of the campaign deflecting away from his record and still almost won in the end. But Mark Obenshain, who at present is 1,000-plus votes ahead in the race for attorney general in Virginia, is the best example of this. Democrats blasted him for a month with the same attacks they used against Cuccinelli, but Obenshain went positive, his opponent was a nonentity, and Obenshain is leading.
Don’t play your opponent’s game. Both sides went negative early and stayed negative the entire campaign, but when Cuccinelli started falling further and further behind in personal favorability, it became clear he could not succeed if the rest of the race was mudslinging. McAuliffe’s team had to be happy that Cuccinelli was still going negative until late in the game. Furthermore, by deflecting attention from his social-conservative record, Cuccinelli depressed the base, and by not explaining it, the deflection garnered no extra independent or female votes.
LOPEZ: Is there a 2016 frontrunner?
CONWAY: The 2016 frontrunners have “Governor” in front of their names and do not live or work in Washington. There are always surprises: early flameouts, late entrants, and unexpected surges in between. What must be resisted is allowing a bunch of donors and consultants to proclaim “who can win” and “who can’t win” three years before the election. It is silly, unprovable, designed to pad the pockets of consultants and dissuade conservative candidates, and is never followed by the Left. They nominate non-household names (Carter, Clinton, Obama) and Republicans nominate people known best for having lost previously (Dole, Romney, McCain). Obamacare, Common Core, and economic growth will be among the important questions to GOP primary voters. The ability to connect with and convince working-class voters and others who remain elusive to the GOP will also matter.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.