The very tight and hard-fought Virginia governor’s race has now concluded, and for the first time since 1969 a gubernatorial candidate of the party holding the White House has won in the Old Dominion.
McAuliffe won by a very narrow margin, even though polls had shown him with a lead of seven to ten points. The reason? A superior conservative and GOP ground game, a failure of Obama voters to turn out for McAuliffe, and the meltdown of Obamacare over the past two weeks, which closed the race to a statistical dead heat.
First, the GOP was divided. Then–attorney general Bob McDonnell and Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling agreed heading into the 2009 election that McDonnell would run for governor first, then Bolling would run for governor in 2013 and McDonnell would back him. Cuccinelli was not a party to this arrangement and never felt bound by it. He chose to run for governor anyway, which was his right. But by changing the nominating process from a primary to a convention, his supporters backed Bolling into a corner (Cuccinelli likely would have won a primary as well), forcing him out of the race. Bolling refused to support Cuccinelli, many of his supporters and donors sat on their hands, and the GOP was hopelessly divided. This stood in stark contrast to the party unity that led to victory four years earlier, and it was a major factor in the outcome. If you want to win, it’s fine to have a heated intramural struggle (certainly Hillary Clinton and Obama did in 2008), but you must mend fences when it is over. The GOP needed everyone on the field to win, and that did not happen.
The same disunity has been seen in the Virginia post-mortems. The Wall Street Journal has pointed to the Tea Party–driven shutdown as causing Cuccinelli’s defeat, while talk-radio hosts are blaming the Republican National Committee for spending far less in Virginia in 2013 than it did in 2009. Neither factor was the main reason for Cuccinelli’s coming up short, but the fact that GOP factions are still organizing a circular firing squad shows that the party remains divided, and it will not win consistently until it is unified.
Cuccinelli’s funding disadvantage was exacerbated by the fact that he had won every previous race in his political career while being heavily outspent. In 2009 his opponent outspent him three to one in the closing weeks, yet Cuccinelli won handily. The same was true in his campaigns for state senate. This created a false belief that his strong grassroots support could overcome losing the air war in a rout. But down-the-ballot races are not the same as being at the top of the ticket. Cuccinelli needed to be more financially competitive with McAuliffe, especially after Labor Day when the race began to slip away.
Third, Cuccinelli remained attorney general as he ran for governor, a break with recent tradition. Previous elected attorney generals (ten of the past eleven) had resigned to avoid even the appearance of a conflict between their gubernatorial campaign and their responsibilities as chief law-enforcement officer of the commonwealth. The only Virginia attorney general since World War II who remained in office while running for governor was Marshall Coleman in 1981, and he lost. In fairness, Cuccinelli argued that pending litigation required his attention and he felt obligated to finish the work to which he had been elected. That was an admirable character trait. But when gifts from a major donor to Governor McDonnell surfaced (and the same donor also had given gifts to Cuccinelli), the attorney general’s office became involved in a matter that affected Cuccinelli’s own campaign. Resigning earlier could have saved Cuccinelli from proximity to the issue, which was a drag on the campaign in the summer.
Fourth, the government shutdown probably affected Virginia more than any other state in the country. As an ally of the tea-party movement, Cuccinelli was in a difficult position. If he condemned the shutdown, he alienated his most enthusiastic supporters. On the other hand, the Obamacare meltdown turned it into a winnable race in the closing weeks, and the exit polling does not indicate that the shutdown alone defeated Cuccinelli. That it made it more difficult for him to gain momentum at a critical point in the campaign is beyond dispute.
Finally, Cuccinelli’s campaign never branded its candidate on kitchen-table issues for swing voters as McDonnell did with “Bob’s for Jobs,” Jim Gilmore did with his plan to abolish the car tax, and George Allen did in 1993 with welfare reform and eliminating parole for violent felons. Unapologetically conservative candidates will always be attacked by the media and the left, and they need issues to appeal beyond their core supporters to soft Democrats and moderate Republicans. These “John Warner” Republicans and “Mark Warner” Democrats are not ideologically driven, but they will respond to kitchen-table issues that speak to their real needs. Such branding can also act as a shield against the inevitable charges of extremism. When the Washington Post attacked McDonnell over his Regent University master’s thesis, in which he argued in support of the traditional family, McDonnell was able to respond by saying the focus of his campaign was on job creation. Cuccinelli did not develop such a shield or a broad-based, issue-oriented appeal to swing voters, which made him more vulnerable to the onslaught of negative ads accusing him (unjustly) of being out of the mainstream.
Still, Cuccinelli ran a good race despite being heavily outspent. He is a man of principle and an outstanding public servant. Ironically given the way his opponent sought to define him, he is known in Richmond as a reasonable and pragmatic legislator and leader who works easily with those on the other side of the aisle. He ran on issues that resonated with Virginians, and took an early and courageous stand against Obamacare (in which he has been vindicated). As a result, a race that looked over turned out in the end to be a squeaker because he never wavered in the onslaught of attacks that sought to define him. He can hold his head high for having fought the good fight, and so should his many friends and supporters.
— Ralph Reed is president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.