Wrapping up Cuccinelli’s loss

Last week I started a column at the Washington Times Communities page called “By the Numbers” and started with a look at Ken Cuccinelli’s Virginia loss.  

With just 3.1%more of Mitt Romney’s 2012 voters, Cuccinelli could have celebrated a Dewey-defeats-Truman moment.  Instead, 780,000 Virginians who supported Romney’s losing effort stayed home, and Terry McAuliffe sneaked past by around 55,000 votes.  POLITICO profiled McAuliffe’s advanced data-driven operation, which read like the post-game analysis of Barack Obama’s win last year.  Meanwhile, Stu Rothenberg underscored Cuccinelli’s failure to bring back Romeny voters.

There were plenty of challenges thrown at Cuccinelli: a spending gap, infighting, an erroneously modeled Washington Post poll that depressed GOP turnout, and center-right outside groups staying on the sideline.  Blaming these things for the loss is like a football team blaming a one-point defeat on a bad call in the first quarter rather than a botched field goal on the last play of the game.  Those factors put Cuccinelli in a bad position, but he was still in a position to win.

Campaign plans are being hatched for 2014 right now, and would-be victors should look at Cuccinelli’s loss careful.  Luck – good or bad – is the residue of design.


“Yes, but I have FRIENDS who are Libertarian!”

Predictably, some of the grumbling from the aftermath of the Virginia governor’s race this week blamed those who voted for libertarian Robert Sarvis.  Leading up to the election, there was a clear advertising strategy telling certain voters that supporting Sarvis was tacit support for Terry McAuliffe.

Sarvis probably did not cost Cuccinelli the governor’s mansion.  This tweet from Townhall’s Kevin Glass quoted an important lesson about Republican and conservative candidates who want to reach out to libertarians:


When reaching out to any segment of the population, a campaign has to forge a real connection.  Demanding libertarian support with buzzwords or a rudimentary understanding of their values works only slightly better than a Latino outreach strategy based on a plateful of Taco Bell gorditas.  (That sounds like something Mitt Romney would have come up with, doesn’t it?)

One could make a libertarian case for Ken Cuccinelli, but not by asking someone to support the lesser of two evils.  There are libertarians who believe in putting principles aside occasionally to support an imperfect candidate with the best chance of winning; those people are known more colloquially as Republicans.  If libertarians are driven by principal, then they must be persuaded based on principle, not policy.

It’s a subtle shift.  In the example Glass tweet’s out above, he mentions taxes, which is a good example.  Most Republicans will bang the drum for lower taxes, but they aren’t always sure why.  The reality is that lower taxes leave money in the economy, which allows for efficient allocation of society’s resources.  Lower taxes mean more free markets, and we have seen for hundreds of years that when left to their own devices through free markets, people tend to make correct choices.

Maybe that’s not to convince all libertarians to support a candidate who also believes in mandatory prison terms for first time smokers, jokers, and midnight tokers.  But without a nuanced message like that, messaging to libertarians would be a wasted effort.

Being able to articulate the “why” – the principle behind the policy – makes a difference.


Who wins if Cuccinelli loses?

Ken Cuccinelli is on the ropes in the Virginia Governor’s race – which is one reason George Will raised some eyebrows last week with his glowing treatment of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate.  Why would a national, established Republican commentator like Will take what looks like an obvious swipe at a major party candidate in one of the two major races going on in 2013?

If trends continue and Cuccinelli loses, there will be another obvious dent in the narrative that the GOP brand is on the rebound  and well-positioned for victory in 2014.  Combined with the fallout from the government shutdown, it will be the second setback of the fall for Republicans, (overshadowing, to some degree, the failed rollout of Obamacare).

As the polls look now, it’s pretty likely to shake out that way.  But not all losses are created equal.  A less-than-50% win for Terry McAuliffe combined with a strong showing from the Sarvis, actually benefits some entities:

1.  Bill Bolling.  Remember Fredo Corleone’s reaction when he got passed over for his kid brother?  Supporters of party conventions over primaries like to say that the non-public, keep-it-in-the-family method of choosing a nominee is less hurtful, but that theory flew out the window in this case.  Rather than playing the good soldier and supporting his nominee, Bolling has waged an un-campaign by creating his own policy organization.  And the word on the street is that he has done some behind-the-scenes work for McAuliffe.  A race where Cuccinelli loses – but center-right candidates, combined, draw a majority – gives further credibility to Bolling in 2017 if he opts to run for Governor calling for a more moderate direction for the state party.

2.  Chris Christie.  Back in the day, the odd, off-off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey meant split victories: Republicans would take the Old Dominion, Democrats would notch the Garden State.  This year, Christie’s runaway reelection victory will buck the trend.  As the most recent Republican winner, it will position him well with top donors and consultants as he prepares for his Presidential run in 2016.  There may also be some who look at a split-vote loss in Virginia as a sign that the GOP needs to moderate nationally.  While it would be a mistake for Christie or his team to make that case publicly, behind closed doors they can make that case to party leaders deciding where they ought to contribute their endorsements and dollars.

3.  Rand Paul.  Very quietly, Rand Paul has been having a great couple of months.  Once considered the most outspoken and conservative among the serious potential Republican field for 2016, Ted Cruz’s filibuster has allowed Paul to present himself as more publicly reserved than the Texas Senator.   While moderates would point to a Cuccinelli loss as a need for a philosophical shift toward the center, Paul could make the case that the split vote means the party has not done enough to make the case to voters equating smaller government with better government.  Since this argument does not involve telling conservative voters they are philosophically wrong, Paul could have the most to gain from a tight loss in Virginia.  (That Paul actually campaigned for Cuccinelli puts him in a better position, as well.)

4.  Conservative/Republican Commentators.  That’s not to say that any of the above folks, or their supporters, goaded Will into his story, of course.  Nationally, if Cuccinelli loses in part because of Sarvis, GOP talking heads can write off the loss as the product of vote-splitting and focus on what looks like an easy victory in New Jersey.  The tough loss might hurt the Commonwealth, but for the people who scream at cameras for a living, it provides an easy pivot point for cable news debates.