Speaking at the state GOP’s “Advance” convention in Virginia Beach this weekend, state attorney general and expected gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli began threading the needle between his reputation as a tough fighter with unequaled social-conservative credibility and the economy-focused mantra of the man whose office he hopes to win, Bob McDonnell, who will leave office next year pursuant to Virginia’s one-term limit for governors.
“Virginia once again has an opportunity — this is an opportunity to show the country that conservatism isn’t dead, that it’s not old or worn out, and that it’s still alive and thriving!” Cuccinelli told a crowd of 650 activists.
He pointed to GOP gubernatorial wins in 1993, 1997, and 2009, arguing that in his state the death of conservatism is an oft-told, always-wrong story: “In 2008, the bottom fell out. Virginia went for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964. We were in trouble, we were on our way out, we were fading away. So what happened? We nominated what the other side and their media allies called ‘the most conservative ticket in Virginia history.’ Sound familiar? They recycled that press release again this week, and we’ll see it again in May regardless of who we nominate for lieutenant governor and attorney general.”
While it’s early and the outlines of the race are still taking shape, there’s reason to believe that the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race will be fought starkly along geographic lines. The two most recent winning Democratic gubernatorial candidates, NASCAR-sponsoring entrepreneur Mark Warner and former Richmond mayor Tim Kaine (now both U.S. senators), both won quite a few counties outside of Virginia’s cities — the county-by-county maps of those gubernatorial elections were evenly divided patchworks of red and blue.
The 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary put the geographic question before that state’s party, pitting state senator Creigh Deeds, who represented rural Bath County, against former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state delegate Brian Moran, who both have close ties to the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. The Washington Post editorial board surprised some by endorsing Deeds and made it rather explicit that it deemed Deeds to have the best shot at competing outside the more Democrat-heavy northern suburbs: “Virginia is still more purple than blue, and Mr. Deeds’s moderate platform would have the broadest appeal.”
But the choice appeared to backfire; Deeds carried few rural counties, and Bob McDonnell won by the widest margin (59 percent to 41 percent) of any Republican gubernatorial candidate in state history, performing remarkably well in Northern Virginia: He won Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudon, and Prince William counties. While McDonnell was winning at the top of the ticket, Cuccinelli was winning his position as attorney general by almost as wide a margin (58 percent to 42 percent) and doing almost as well in Northern Virginia, winning in Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and trailing slightly in Fairfax.
There is a theory among some Virginia Republicans that the Washington Post gives tougher and more unfair coverage to their statewide candidates than to national GOP figures; some wonder if the left-leaning reporters and editors are more tolerant of Republicans if they’re not running to represent the paper’s circulation area. The Post mentioned “macaca” in approximately 100 articles, op-eds, and editorials about the 2006 Virginia Senate race between George Allen and Jim Webb and provided similar swarm-of-bees coverage of McDonnell’s 21-year-old Regent University thesis in 2009.
Cuccinelli can expect a similar crusade from the paper in the coming year, and the Post’s distaste for him is rarely subtle. An editorial in July began, “Ken Cuccinelli II, the most overtly partisan attorney general in Virginia’s history, has waged war on Obamacare, harassed climate-change scientists, sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals and embraced Arizona’s (now mostly gutted) immigration law. He has clung to his post after declaring his candidacy for governor, thereby parting ways with past attorneys general, Republicans and Democrats alike, who resigned to run rather than entangle the office in politics.” (If Virginia officeholders who are entangled in politics bother the editors so, one wonders what they thought about Tim Kaine’s serving his final year as governor of Virginia while simultaneously working as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.)
This year, McAuliffe is trying again and appears to have the Democratic nomination well in hand, but his roots in the non-D.C.-suburb portions of the state are as thin as ever: Since his last bid, he spent a year as a fellow at Harvard University’s School of Government. Democrats are not greeting McAuliffe’s bid with unalloyed enthusiasm; when Senator Warner announced he was not interested in running for governor again, he declined to endorse McAuliffe, and some Virginia Democrats encouraged one-term House member Tom Perriello to explore a bid.
Discussing his likely rival, Cuccinelli told the Virginia Beach crowd, “the Washington Post itself has said, the Democrats are running a candidate who has parachuted into Virginia. The Post has also called him ‘a Washington insider, and a Virginia outsider.’ Our vision is different from theirs of Virginia as a mini-Washington.”
After his introductory remarks about conservatism, Cuccinelli at the Virginia Beach convention suggested that he will also emulate McDonnell’s focus on job creation: “I have a clear and simple vision for my term as governor. Decrease the burdens of government. Increase individual liberty. And focus on continuing the efforts of Governor McDonnell on economic development. Liberty in the economy is opportunity. We can’t have economic opportunity without liberty.”
Obama’s victory in the state — 51.1 percent to 47.4 percent, according to the most recent numbers — might have some Republicans sweating. But the political environment of Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial elections is worlds apart from that of a presidential election. The percentage of registered voters participating in the past three presidential races has been in the 60s; the percentage of voters who turn out for gubernatorial races is usually in the mid- to high 40s.
Deeds’s dismal finish in November 2009 was the first indicator that Obama’s appeal to African-American voters and young people is not transferrable to other Democratic candidates when he isn’t on the ballot, a hard lesson learned by Martha Coakley and a slew of Democrats in the 2010 midterms. However, McAuliffe’s years with the party are likely to win him considerable support from Democratic headquarters; he played golf with Obama this weekend and can count on Bill Clinton to appear on the campaign trail for him early and often.
Sharp eyes will notice that in every Virginia gubernatorial election since 1977 the party of the incumbent president has lost the election — even when Virginia had strongly voted for the president in question. This may reflect that the grassroots of the party that just won tends to slack off while the grassroots of the party that lost feels it has to work harder. Expect Cuccinelli to tap into that feeling in the year ahead.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.