Today there will be a host of media analysts pre-writing their stories on the results of elections in Virginia and New Jersey to argue a couple of things: first, that just as Mitt Romney told us last week, Chris Christie may be the only guy who can save the Republican Party from certain doom, and second, that running extremist candidates will accelerate that doom in purple states throughout the nation. There are lessons to be taken from both races and both candidates, so it’s wrong to just dismiss them as elections driven by the quirks of both states… but there may be fewer lessons which apply nationally than you might expect.
Barring anything extremely unexpected, Christie should romp to victory, while Ken Cuccinelli should lose. The latter race looked like a romp for Terry McAuliffe a few weeks ago (with polls showing him up 12, 15, and 17 points in mid October), but recent polling indicates Cuccinelli has closed the gap quite a bit with his closing arguments against Obamacare. There are many reasons Cuccinelli has been running behind, much of which I’ve written about before. But here are ten reasons Cuccinelli – a talented retail politician who pretty clearly won each debate in the race and won repeatedly in a tossup Northern Virginia district – is running behind today:
1. Cuccinelli got killed fundraising. Say what you will for Terry 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 Republican Governors Association, 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, mostly targeted at fledgling minority-targeting efforts. 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 elected moderates backed him up (Romney, Jeb, and others all fundraised for him), the NOVA business community and establishment Republicans didn’t. A smarter campaign would’ve made it harder for McAuliffe to get this support early on, driving up his negatives when he still had low name ID and making it harder for business dollars to justify backing him – but a campaign that gets completely 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 combating 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 offputting thing about McDonnell for me has always been that he’s a little too perfect – the hair never out of place), got tagged with a spiraling donor gift scandal. 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. While I think he’s not much of a libertarian or a serious person given his positions on Medicaid, taxes, and abortion clinics, I dispute the notion that Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate, is actually a spoiler in this race. While exit polls may reflect something different, every poll thus far 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. In that case, Sarvis delivered pretty much what the Obama bundlers who got him on the ballot wanted all along.
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.
The real question now is: what kind of Republican candidate can win statewide in Virginia? Is there one? I doubt Tom Davis or Bill Bolling is the answer. But what about Chris Christie? His win today is likely to be impressive on a historical scale. Yet will it export beyond New Jersey? I remain skeptical that Christie’s appeal can transfer outside of the northern I-95 corridor to states like Virginia, Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and the like. That’s the central question I think is unanswered, and won’t be until the 2016 cycle begins.
As a blue state Republican with cross-party appeal, Christie certainly seems closer to the vision of the conventional wisdom on paper of what the GOP will have to do to win a national election going forward. But in practice, I have the sneaking suspicion that he may turn out to be another Heffalump.