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.

The Tea Party’s first casualty of 2012

A moderate Democrat Senator, who had been backed into some tough votes, was made vulnerable by his public allegiance to President Obama.  The only possible path to victory would be a tea party Republican candidate lacking in media savvy and unable to connect with voters.  Unfortunately for Jim Webb, he isn’t Harry Reid.  Despite a wide-open Republican field stuck between lesser-known candidates and former YouTube sensations, Webb is not running for re-election in 2012.

Many political observers thought a groundswell of conservative activism would upend incumbents in 2012 – speculation included Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar, and even the normally safe Olympia Snowe falling in primaries.  Webb’s surprise exit beats them all.

Even without an opponent at this point, Webb had to see the writing on the wall that his re-election would be tough.   The redemption-seeking retread candidacy of George Allen is ripe for a tea party upset, and other candidates are lining up as well.  But with excited conservative activists and the absence of national Democrat momentum, Webb was destined to join Creigh Deeds in the second place circle in November 2012, even against a fringe tea partier.

Put another way, Sharron Angle, who narrowly lost to Reid, probably would have beaten Webb in Virginia.  John Buck in Colorado likely would have beaten Webb in Virginia.  Webb doesn’t have the long record of public service that Reid boasts, nor the leadership, nor the ability to raise nearly $25 million to holdhis seat.  Democratic campaign committees and independent groups were unlikely to chip in – races in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, plus pickup opportunities in Nevada and Massachusetts, will all rank ahead of Virginia for national Democrats.

Aside from the realities of the electoral map, investing in a Virginia race with Jim Webb as your candidate has a strategic messaging issue.  After all, Democrats were able to beat back some challengers in 2010 by convincing independents that specific Republicans – such as Angle – were a bit loony.  Michael Bennet, Chris Coons, Reid, and others were able to paint themselves as sane alternatives to “crazy tea partiers.”

There is simply no conceivable way the tea party could out-crazy Jim Webb.


40Seats.com: A literal map to GOP victory

The historic highs Republicans are enjoying in this week’s generic ballot poll numbers are nice, but it alone won’t restore GOP control of Congress in November.  A pretty cool website called 40seats.com literally provides a map to GOP victory in November by allowing potential activists to be connected to nearby Congressional races which are up for grabs.

Ballots aren’t generic – and in some cases Democrats have plenty of advantages.  For instance, let’s say your Congressman had a long list of embarassments – maybe he famously accused an eight year old of attempting to carjack him, or promised to “earmark the [expletive] out of” appropriations under his purview, or said “I like to hit people” when describing his affinity for boxing, and/or had a birthday party interrupted by what eyewitness observers described as two girlfriends fighting.  Yet, the people of your district keep electing him to the House, apparently for earmarks and giggles.  But next door, maybe even in a Congressional district you lived in up until, say, June 28 of this year, your involvement could really help the folks on the ground.

40Seats gives you an at-a-glance view of what’s wrong with the incumbent, and gives users options to allow varying degrees of activity – from making phone calls to putting a yard sign out to donating to walking precincts:

The credits indicate the site is mostly a mashup of tools that are open, available, and free – which is what makes 40Seats even smarter than it looks.

And no, sadly, Jim Moran is not targeted.

Viva la revolucion

Patrick Ruffini, one of the consultants who helped Scott Brown take back the people’s seat in Massachusetts, wrote an extensive wrap-up of the campaign’s online fundraising in the last month.   The whole thing is a good read, but his assessment of the recent online innovations of each party at the very end is intriguing:

As we have written in the pages of the Washington Post, during the right’s online wilderness years (this “wildnerness” being the mirror image of being in power in Washington) many pundits wondered whether the right was at a permanent structural disadvantage online… [N]ow that the right has needed to use grassroots tools to break the Democratic lock-hold on Washington, they’ve done it in a big way. And it’s happened much faster, and with greater early electoral success, than the evolution of the liberal “netroots” which didn’t really take off until the end of Bush’s first term.

Much has been written about the Massachusetts race, and most of it is an exaggeration.  But the studies of Brown and Virginia’s Gov. Bob McDonnell successful use of online tactics in winning campaigns underscores a running theme – like President Obama, their innovative campaigns were seeking to win an office held by the other party.  All three were on the outside looking in.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.  Political parties are made up of politicians, so of course they tend to be risk-averse – unless they have no office to risk.

The Obama Triangle?

Our President is establishing a bad track record.

Much has been written and said on his drop in the polls over the last year, but his track record in trying to lend a helping hand has been particularly disturbing:

  • In 2009, President Obama campaigned in New Jersey for incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine and in Virginia for Democrat Creigh Deeds.  Both tied their campaigns to the successful 2008 Obama campaign in varying degrees; both lost.
  • In 2010, the President entered the Bay State to give Democrat Martha Coakley a boost in what was, according to the polls at the time, a dead heat.  We know how that turned out.

Bad Deeds

With his campaign seemingly obsessed with Bob McDonnell’s grad school thesis,  Creigh Deeds was starting to sound like a one-trick-pony.  As John McCain learned in 2008, defining your campaign is difficult if the race becomes a referendum on your opponent.  But Deeds found a way to make it even harder on himself with his discussion on transportation:

Barring some scandal or monumental shift, this is the defining moment of the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial race.  Bob McDonnell has been consistent, if unexciting.  This clips makes it tough for Deeds to answer that consistency.  And it’s tough to be exciting when you split policy hairs about raising one type of tax versus another.

Perhaps Deeds was trying to excite the Democratic base by channeling Ted Kennedy.