Virginia triggers GOP circular firing squad
By: John F. Harris and Anna Palmer
November 7, 2013 05:03 AM EST
The politics of the matter seem virtually beyond dispute: A GOP candidate with more mainstream appeal than Ken Cuccinelli would have beaten Democrat Terry McAuliffe and given Republicans control of the Virginia governorship. All it would have taken was a shift of 27,610 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast.
But here is another fact that is all but beyond argument: If establishment Republicans in Virginia and nationally had shown more faith in their candidate, ignored the polls that showed him getting blown out, and ponied up the cash to prevent McAuliffe from outraising him by $15 million, then Cuccinelli would now be governor-elect. The evidence seems clear that the GOP started to bury its dead while his pulse was still plenty strong.
These opposite scenarios, both eminently plausible, have left virtually every Republican mad at some other Republican about what hap pened Tuesday in the Old Dominion.
The old saying about victory having a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan turns out not to be quite right. The paternity suit over Cuccinelli’s narrow loss is vigorously under way.
The loss is the fault of the right-wing activists who control the state’s GOP machinery. If they had allowed a primary instead of insisting on a convention, a more electable Republican like Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling might have won the nomination and cruised to a general election victory over a flawed candidate like McAuliffe.
It’s Ted Cruz’s fault. Shutting down the federal government weeks before Election Day in a state thick with federal workers slowed Cuccinelli down just when he could have been closing the sale.
It’s the GOP establishment’s fault. If they had stopped poor-mouthing their own party — something they complain indignantly about when tea party activists do it — Cuccinelli could have spent all his fighting time on McAuliffe instead of on rear-guard battles.
The fact that there is at least a kernel of truth to all the explanations only guarantees that the debate will continue for a good long while — influencing decisions about candidate selection, fundraising, and tactics all through the 2014 midterm elections. Just as the federal government shutdown ended without a resolution other than to have a new budget battle in January, the Virginia results guarantee an ongoing argument over whether the party is better served by trimming its sails with a moderate message or by having the courage to fight for first principles.
“The Republican Party needs to try to find out what went wrong in Virginia,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told POLITICO. “Clearly, Obamacare was a big asset, [it] closed the race. Did the shutdown hurt? Did it have any effect at all? Did the convention nominating process?”
He added there ought to be a “post-mortem on Virginia.”
The Washington consultant class turned their fire at Cruz, whose quest to shut down the government over Obamacare coincided with what turned out to be a decisive moment in the final weeks of the race.
“The Ted Cruz legislative strategy to defund Obamacare not only had no chance of success, but it masked, it covered up the incredibly bad news for Obama over the rollout,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said. “Obamacare would have been in the forefront of the media’s minds on Oct. 1 but for this absolutely doomed-to-failure legislative tactic. … The Republicans started getting some traction at the end because of people’s disgust with the rollout of Obamacare and their fear of what Obamacare is going to do to them.”
But movement conservatives say it’s not their fault at all — it’s the establishment that abandoned Cuccinelli in the homestretch of a race that now looks winnable in hindsight.
“At the urging of the Establishment, far too many national Republican donors declined to support Cuccinelli. He was outspent by nearly $15 million. You cannot win if you lack the resources to be heard,” Cruz’s chief political strategist Jason Johnson wrote on the conservative website RedState.com.
Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin went even further, arguing that it was the tea party efforts to defund Obamacare that made the health care law an issue at all in the election.
“They wrote the race off,” Martin said of the establishment. “That’s what frustrates me the most. Had they fought and engaged there may have been a different result.”
Then there’s the money question. Debate over whether outside groups and party committees like the Republican Governors Association should have gone in with heavier artillery is raging.
Veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black defended the governors group.
“What you don’t know is if it was going to be close all along and more resources could have somehow won it, or if he sort of maxed out,” Black said. “Nobody could see the tightening until at the earliest two weeks out when no TV time was available.”
And even some establishment Republicans say money was the issue, but they aren’t ready to just blame donors. Cuccinelli was too flawed a candidate to fundraise from traditional GOP sources.
“One of the problems was Cuccinelli comes from a wing of the party that has problems with business groups and outside organizations that could have either donated or spent on his behalf. That could have made a difference,” said Kevin Madden, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
And the money would have mattered, since McAuliffe’s spending kicked into high gear just as the government shut down.
“One key time period during the campaign was where they were really being outspent — that’s where the numbers moved — it was the same time as the shutdown,” Madden said. “It did have an impact on the Cuccinelli campaign.”
One Republican fundraiser agreed, lamenting Cruz and the tea party’s play.
“Without the government shutdown, Ken Cucinelli is the governor of Virginia.”