Ken Cuccinelli’s near miss sparks recriminations
By: Emily Schultheis
November 6, 2013 09:30 AM EST
RICHMOND — Anyone expecting Ken Cuccinelli and the conservative wing of the Virginia GOP to lie down and admit defeat was disappointed Tuesday night.
After Cuccinelli’s closer-than-expected loss, the defiant candidate and his supporters said the election results were only a blip on the radar of the larger conservative struggle as they blamed the defeat on Obamacare and a deluge of Democratic attack ads. Some Cuccinelli backers privately steamed that the national party did not do more to shore up Cuccinelli against Democrat Terry McAuliffe and his enormous war chest.
The Republican candidate’s surprise showing touched off a round of recriminations among the GOP’s conservative and moderate wings — between Republicans who say Cuccinelli’s strict profile on social issues antagonized critical middle-of-the-road voters and those who say a good conservative candidate was tossed overboard by his party leadership. A lopsided Democratic victory might have given moderates a clear leg up in that debate; instead, the battle between the two factions over what – if anything – needs to change is bound to rage on.
“This isn’t a total loss at all,” Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins told the crowd after Cuccinelli conceded the governor’s race. “Keep in mind that Terry McAuliffe got less than 50 percent of the vote, so he does not have a mandate to do anything. And looking at the House races … we still have a [Republican-led] House that will block any crazy ideas he may have.”
Mullins blasted out-of-state Democratic money and media bias as the major sources of Cuccinelli’s problems in the race.
“Our candidates are decent, honest family men. They love their families, they love their God, they love their country and this commonwealth but for the last six months they’ve been nonstop demonized by Democrats,” Mullins said before the race was called. “[Democrats say] we hate women, we hate minorities, we hate everything. But that’s not who these people are.”
He wasn’t alone in blaming the election results on outside forces. Cuccinelli and GOP lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson treated their losses Tuesday night as just a precursor to future battles that have yet to be fought.
Cuccinelli, conceding the race to McAuliffe, said that regardless of the outcome his supporters sent a message to President Barack Obama about the Democratic health care law.
“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” he told supporters.
Jackson, too, blasted the Democrats’ spending in the race, saying they used their financial advantage to distort the GOP candidates’ records.
“They lied to us, they vilified us, they took the things we said and twisted them, turned them, contorted them, perverted them and said everything about us they could make up,” he said to an enthusiastic crowd. “But folks, I stand before you unbroken, unbowed and unwilling to quit.”
Still, Tuesday night’s results — the first time in more than three decades that a candidate from the same party that won the White House the previous year — are an unavoidable reminder that the political demography of Virginia is rapidly changing, shifting blue and making it harder for GOP candidates to win statewide races. But at this point, the party is divided between those who are calling for big changes and those who insist that nothing is wrong.
“We’ve moved from inconsequential to battleground and maybe even now trending over a little bit toward the blue side in the span of a dozen years,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), elected to the Senate in 2012, told POLITICO. “That’s a very fast transformation.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that shift is apparent by looking at presidential election results: George H.W. Bush won Virginia by 20 points; his son, George W. Bush, won it by just 8 points in 2000.
“Virginia, at least temporarily, has moved from purple to blue-ish,” he said. “[Republicans] have to accept reality and if they don’t they’ll continue to lose.”
Next year, when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is up for reelection, Republicans will again use the convention nominating system to choose their candidate — and all signs point to Warner winning again by a big margin.
Former Rep. Tom Davis, who supported Cuccinelli in the race, said that unless the party starts putting up more electable candidates statewide, it will “go the way of California.”
“The reality is the demographics of this state have changed and the party hasn’t changed with it,” he said. “Basically you have a third of Virginia that’s New Jersey — the party just fails to recognize this.”
Bob Lazaro, the Republican mayor of Purcellville, Va., who endorsed McAuliffe earlier this year, said the party has lost its ability to include a broader spectrum of Republicans and independent Republicans.
“Our party, in many respects, in Virginia has been taken over by a sideshow,” he said. “The party of the Reagan’s ‘Big Tent’ has been reduced by some to a dunce cap. We can do better than that.”
Kaine, who as a former Virginia governor and current senator has benefited from some of the demographic shifts in the state, said the GOP’s troubles come from the “no-compromise” wing of the party — a group that was on full display during the government shutdown last month.
“There are plenty of Republicans that are open to compromise and working together, but it’s often the no-compromise folks that get the upper hand in nominating battles — and that’s what’s happened in Virginia,” Kaine said.
But Cuccinelli came much closer to victory than most observers were expecting — which complicates the narrative that he and his campaign’s tone were the reason he lost.
Pete Snyder, the businessman who ran unsuccessfully against Jackson for the lieutenant governor nomination, said Cuccinelli’s close margin shows that he was stronger than people gave him credit for.
“Everyone wrote Virginia off coming into this thing and it ended up being a nail-biter,” he said. “Ken Cuccinelli probably had 10 to 20 things going against him … and he still nearly pulled it off.”
The Virginia GOP’s state central committee holds its next set of elections next spring, and anyone hoping for big changes in the state party says some major turnover in those elections is necessary. The current crop of members, many of whom were ushered in with a wave of Ron Paul backers two years ago, were responsible for the switch from an open primary system to the convention system that caused Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to drop out of the governor’s race and nominated controversial pastor E.W. Jackson as its lieutenant governor candidate.
“I hope we never have another nominating convention in Virginia,” Bolling said. “I think we clearly saw this year the problems that these closed party conventions create.”
It’s not just the Bollings and the moderate Republicans of the party who say change is necessary: even many of the state’s conservatives say that while their candidates and beliefs shouldn’t have to change, their tactics and campaign tone will.
“The old ways of doing things aren’t working,” said Shaun Kenney, a former communications director for the state GOP and now a contributor to the conservative blog Bearing Drift. “This has been a seven-year conversation in Virginia, all the way back to when George Allen lost the Senate seat 2006.”
“We still haven’t figured out how to emerge into moderate campaigning,” he continued. “We had Bob McDonnell in 2009 — he caught the wave, so that sort of papered over some of the problems we were having on the ground.”
But whether or not any changes ultimately do happen is still an open question.
“This should become time for a come to Jesus meeting, not for a circular firing squad,” said Davis, who said state party leaders will do everything they can to place the blame for 2013 elsewhere.
Still, Sabato said, the losses in 2008 and 2012 combined with statewide losses this year might prompt Virginia Republicans to rethink their approach.
“You get hit over the head by a 2-by-4 enough times, usually you see sense after the pain stops,” he said.