A year ago, the Virginia governor’s race looked like it would be pretty boring. It seemed inevitable that current governor Bob McDonnell’s sidekick, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, would follow in his popular boss’s footsteps and waltz into the governor’s mansion without much of a fight. Cuccinelli led in early polls, and in April, the liberal New Republic devoted an entire article not to the possibility of a Cuccinelli governorship, but the possibility of a Cuccinelli presidential run after his governorship.
And yet over the course of the last year, it all slipped away. Cuccinelli was defeated on Tuesday by Terry McAuliffe, an enormously flawed and unpopular Democrat who isn’t even from the state. Why and how Cuccinelli lost is worth examining, as it portends very bad things for the Republican Party going forward, and should cause some long, hard thinking within the GOP.
Both candidates were underwhelming. On one side, you had McAuliffe, a mega-fundraiser for Democrats, close ally of the Clintons, and the dictionary definition of a back-slapping good ol’ boy. McAuliffe isn’t exactly a populist. He’s never held elected office, isn’t from Virginia, isn’t terribly liked by progressives, and has a history of unscrupulous business dealings. His primary political asset is his ability to convince rich people to write checks for the Democratic Party, which admittedly, he’s very good at. He once famously wrestled an alligator to secure a $15,000 campaign contribution for Jimmy Carter, and when Bill Clinton was president, convinced his boss to rent out the Lincoln Bedroom to Democratic fundraisers.
On the other side was Cuccinelli; a clean-cut, hyper-conservative culture warrior who’s as ideologically rigid as McAuliffe is ideologically nebulous. Cuccinelli, who’s fought vociferously for anti-sodomy laws, mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, and the closure of Planned Parenthood clinics, was elected Attorney General in 2009 on now-Governor Bob McDonnell’s coattails. Back when McDonnell was a rising Republican star, Cuccinelli’s election to the governor’s mansion in 2013 was seen as almost a given.
But Virginians ultimately came to loathe both candidates. A Public Policy Poll taken the week before the election showed McAuliffe and Cuccinelli with net favorability ratings of -16 and -13, respectively. You’ll notice that McAuliffe’s ratings were even worse than Cuccinelli’s; however, the 15 percent of voters who disliked both candidates also preferred McAuliffe by an astounding 61-16 margin. In other words, McAuliffe somehow came to be seen as the lesser of two evils. And now he’s the governor-elect.
Why exactly the race turned around is debatable. There was definitely a financial element: It turns out that raising ridiculous amounts of money for politicians over the course of several decades nets you lot of favors, and McAuliffe translated those favors into both a massive fundraising advantage and institutional support from the state’s Democratic Party apparatus. There’s also the fact that McDonnell, who was once considered a future presidential candidate, has suffered an avalanche of fundraising scandals, further tarnishing the Cuccinelli brand. Some argued that Cuccinelli ran a bad campaign, while others say he ran as good of a campaign as he could have, given that he is who he is.
What is clear is that the Republican Party should be very concerned about Cuccinelli’s loss, and not just because they lost an election. For one, Democrats will have now one of their own in the Virginia governor’s mansion during the 2016 presidential elections, which translates to political and fundraising support in what could be a pivotal swing state. This effect will be multiplied if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton, who’s extremely, extremely close to McAuliffe (she broke her four year moratorium on political events to campaign for him last month). Furthermore, in orchestrating his win, McAuliffe has built up a financial network of support in the state, an infrastructure on which future Democratic candidates can rely.
But what ought to be most concerning here for the GOP is what this race says about the country’s attitude toward the GOP’s fundamental policy agenda. The problem is twofold: First, from a policy standpoint, Cuccinelli is the embodiment of the contemporary Republican Party. He’s not just pro-life and anti-gay, but aggressively, unapologetically so. He thinks gay sex is “intrinsically wrong,” and wants “policies that reflect that.” He supports cutting corporate taxes and offsetting the cost by ending deductions and closing loopholes, but doesn’t specify which deductions and loopholes. He has an A-rating from the NRA, and was the first Attorney General to sue over Obamacare.
Cuccinelli is a pitch-perfect representation of everything the national party stands for in 2013: abortion restrictions; tax cuts for businesses; 1950s-era social policies; firearms for everybody; and unwavering opposition to President Obama. And the voters rejected him.
Compounding matters is the fact that by every conceivable measure, Republicans should have had this race in the bag. Cuccinelli had history on his side: Since 1978, Virginia has never elected a governor from the same party as the president who won election the year prior. In addition, Virginia a swing state with a lot of gun owners, and Democrats have strongly pushed gun control measures in the last year. Cuccinelli had positive approval ratings as late as last May, and McAuliffe is a deeply flawed candidate. So, then, the best and only explanation for Cuccinelli’s loss is that voters just didn’t like his policies.
Women, in particular, were crucial in his defeat: Despite the fact that McAuliffe once admitted to attending a fundraiser while his wife was in labor, Virginian women nonetheless prefer him over Cuccinelli by an astounding 24-point margin. That’s not something Republicans can blame on their candidate failing to communicate his values to voters, as they so often like to do. The problem, rather, is that Cuccinelli’s values were perfectly well-communicated to voters, and they were rejected.
A July survey of the race found women in the state to be largely pro-choice, and furthermore, that they were more motivated by the candidates’ positions on abortion than on any other issue. Cuccinelli is a guy who opposes abortion in cases of rape or incest, supports personhood legislation, and humbly compares his crusade to against abortion to abolitionists’ fight against slavery.
It’s impossible not to Cuccinelli's loss at least in part as a steadfast rejection of the absolutist pro-life ideology in a state that, as Mark Murray helpfully points out, is a near-perfect political microcosm of the country as a whole.
It’s also not impossible to compare Cuccinelli’s fortunes with that of 2013’s other Republican gubernatorial candidate. Chris Christie won reelection in liberal New Jersey by blowout proportions the same night Cuccinelli lost middle-of-the-road Virginia, and while there are tons of differences between the two races, the two candidates do illustrate two different futures for the Republican Party.
Does the party moderate its views, reject obstructionist Tea Partiers, and win elections in blue states? Or do they stick to their guns (literally and metaphorically), defend fringe conservative beliefs like abolishing the 10th Amendment, and lose elections they really have no business losing?
The Republican Party has publicly and vocally acknowledged its need to grow its support beyond that of old white people, yet somehow also believes that it can do this without changing its policy platform. Cuccinelli is a test-tube example of what this strategy has to offer the party, and the clearest possible sign that the GOP needs to either rethink its underlying political ideology or become content with losing winnable elections and becoming a permanent minority party. Something’s gotta give.