An Early Take on the Virginia Gubernatorial Race 2013

The other governor’s race this year, besides the one in New Jersey, will be in Virginia. Before discussing that race, just to follow up on some comments regarding the New Jersey race: As someone mentioned, if anyone thinks Christie’s “embrace of Obama” in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy cost Romney the election, they are mistaken. In my humble opinion, that videotape of the fundraiser did irreparable harm to the Romney campaign. It sort of solidified in many voter’s minds the disconnect between the more patrician Romney and the average Joe Blow. Second, no one knows Christie’s political ambitions come 2016, but I cannot seriously see him being the GOP nominee for president. Although I do not agree 100% with all the things in the RNC “autopsy,” I do agree that the sooner the party coalesces around a nominee, the better. The protracted primary/debate schedule in 2012 also hurt Romney. Therefore, clearing the field early and getting behind the best chance for victory- Marco Rubio- is in the best interests of the GOP. In fact, I cannot even see Christie being the VP choice, although I can see a governor (or ex) being the choice- someone like Jack Darymple, Mitch Daniels, or Bob McDonnell. As I have said many times, a Christie presidential run would be entertaining, but a losing proposition. Simply, Chris Christie is great for New Jersey, but would not be so good for the country so those who hold the belief that he should stay in Jersey, do not worry. I not only stand by your sentiments, I endorse them although for possibly different reasons. Perhaps, a 2018 run against Menendez for Christie would be a more likely scenario and one I believe we can all support.

Speaking of entertainment, the Virginia governor’s race is shaping up as very entertaining, but in a potentially nasty way- sort of like a Quentin Tarantino idea of entertainment. The race will no doubt be defined by nastiness if the current state of affairs is any indication. First, we have to look at who is not running and the name that first comes to mind is the Lt. Governor Bill Bolling. He likely would have been a decent, non-controversial choice who would have continued some of the policies of popular outgoing Governor Bob McDonnell. But, he has taken his name off the table and thus cleared the field for current state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli. In polling leading up to his decision, he was training the AG. A contentious Republican primary would have potentially hurt ANY GOP chance of keeping this state in the Republican fold especially since the Democratic candidate is already set. However, this is the first inkling of things to come as Bolling, although announcing he will not run, has not endorsed Cuccinelli. Perhaps that will come later, but certainly not now.

There is also that leaked meeting between Cuccinelli and Virginia business leaders (read:donors). Simply, many within the Virginia business community are not enamored with Cuccinelli. They will likely eventually lend some support, but thus far there is underwhelming support present. There is also some whispers among the business community that another third party candidate can potentially emerge who they can back. Simply put, they want a fiscal conservative without the social conservative “baggage” that Cuccinelli brings to the table. Cuccinelli’s rise through Virginia politics began in 2002 when he surprisingly won a seat in the state senate first through an upset in the primary, then in the general election. In that election, the primary-defeated Republican actually endorsed the Democrat running due to Cuccinelli’s staunch social conservative views. He then went on to become the state attorney general where he made a name for himself and became a favorite of the Tea Party. Cuccinelli was the first state attorney general to take on Obamacare in the courts. To put it mildly, Cuccinelli is a conservative’s conservative.

That would be one thing, but there were others that elevated his name recognition. The others were his attempts to have state colleges not include homosexuality in their harassment policies (McDonnell had to intervene and assure many that gays would not be harassed), his steadfast opposition to abortion, and his taking on global warming, most notably by investigating a scientist at the University of Virginia. I fully agree that much of the science over climate change is skewed to fit a liberal political agenda but whether that is worthy of an investigation by the state attorney general is another story and likely a waste of state money. As some Virginia political observers have noted, Cuccinelli’s book “Last Line of Defense” doubled down on his staunch conservative beliefs. When he became the presumptive GOP nominee, as these observers noted, it is never really good news when the Democratic Party holds a news conference in Richmond and reads from your book.

Initial polling both from national and local firms indicate a dead heat at this point between Cuccinelli and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. About a third of those polled were still undecided. But, here is the rub: of those who said they would vote for Cuccinelli, many said they did not know who McAuliffe was. Of those who said they would vote for McAuliffe they said they did not like Cuccinelli. Thus, the obvious take from this is that both sides will resort to defining their opposition for the electorate and is that which will bring about the negativity.

There is no denial that Cuccinelli is a staunch conservative and ideologically principled. Although clearly unapologetic in his beliefs, there are many within the Party and certainly the majority outside the party who believe that Cuccinelli may be the Virginia equivalent of Todd Akin and will suffer the same fate. As most watchers of Virginia point out, voters look for three things in a candidate- a rise through the ranks of state politics, a modicum of moderation, and a certain gentility along the way. Cuccinelli fails the second and third tests. It should be noted that both are not even Virginia natives with Cuccinelli born in New Jersey and McAuliffe in New York, although Cuccinelli’s Virginia connections are deeper.

The above noted polls create an opening for the GOP to define McAuliffe since most people do not know who he is in the first place. Interestingly, despite the fact he lost the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary (badly), his name recognition in the state remains low. For McAuliffe, the problem is his past also although not necessarily his ideology. In fact, he is somewhat ideologically adrift. He is intimately tied to the Clinton political machine and all the fundraising and ethical questions that involves. He will be portrayed as a carnival barker/huckster and inside political operative and a carpetbagger to boot. And although he is trying to portray himself as a savvy businessman who will continue in the tradition of McDonnell, there is much in his business past to raise some flags. For example, his latest venture, GreenTech, is a huge recipient of Obama “green energy” dollars. To add insult to injury, he located his company’s manufacturing headquarters in Mississippi, not his “native” Virginia, and then seemed to not tell the whole truth when this was brought to life. He claimed it was because the state showed little interest when documents indicate he never provided requested material for the state to make an informed decision. Previous to this, there are indications that he may have used SEC connections to parlay a $100,000 investment into an $18 million profit. Cuccinelli would be guilty of political malpractice if he does not highlight these lowlights of the McAuliffe business model. In fact, he really represents the worst of possibilities- a Democratic insider who has raised a fortune through his political connections. Although he may be great in that area, he is ideologically adrift. Cuccinelli would be the polar opposite, but may be viewed as too rigid and uncompromising to govern a state like Virginia. Equally important, McAuliffe has not come up through the Virginia political system since he was never elected to any office in the state. Instead, his credentials are the alleged business acumen arguments and his political connections. Those credentials are either dubious, non-existent, or just plain ethically challenged. Either way, this allows the GOP to define him in a bad light not only ethically, but ideologically.

There is some history in Cuccinelli’s favor. Since Virginia holds their Governor’s election in an off year (non-Presidential and non-midterm), the winner has usually come from the Party that lost the White House the year before. Hopefully, Cuccinelli will not rely on that historical peccadillo to win this year. Thus far, the outgoing Governor, Bob McDonnell, has not exactly embraced the GOP nominee 100%. His most recent television appearances show tepid support. Prior to becoming Governor, McDonnell was also the Attorney General. In fact, state AG seems to be a stepping stone to the Governor’s mansion. Unlike McDonnell, Cuccinelli has decided to stay in his position while running his campaign. McDonnell has deferred to individual decision-making as a justification, but it was a half-hearted justification almost with a wink at the camera. One gets the sense that McDonnell sees red flags as the campaign draws on and Election Day nears.

Another thing in Cuccinelli’s favor in 2013 is the demographic make up of the electorate itself. Unlike a midterm or presidential election year, this electorate will be whiter and older than 2012. These demographics will be more likely to vote Republican. Therefore, McAuliffe will likely resort to scare tactics in order to spur the Democratic base in Virginia to turn out and vote by portraying Cuccinelli as the second coming of Lester Maddox. And it is obvious that to win Virginia, one cannot rely on the southern, more conservative part of the state. To prevail in a statewide election, if you are Republican, you must win your traditional southern part/rural areas of Virginia and do well in the northern part (although not necessarily win) and the DC suburbs and exurbs. You can win also by doing not so well (but winning) in the south and then picking off a few northern counties. If you choose the latter model, you will most likely be branded a RINO somewhere along the line. If you rely mainly on your southern/rural base, you will be labeled a conservative ideologue somewhere along the line. Ironically, Cuccinelli calls the northern part his home base. And one should fully expect McAuliffe to use the Obama strategy in Virginia to win statewide- take the northern, populated counties and selected urban areas downstate to put him over the top. I also find it interesting that when McAuliffe has “friends” like the Washington Post, New York Times and Ralph Nader calling you out on your past and questioning your ability to be Governor of Virginia, Cuccinelli is dealt a rare hand and he would be foolish not to play it. Hence, the goal is to define McAuliffe as an outsider in Virginia, beholden not to its citizens but to the Democratic Party, and as a businessman with dubious and ethically questionable results to his credit. Cuccinelli must stay on the offense against the Democrat as McAuliffe will likely attempt to obscure his opponent’s views and paint Cuccinelli as an ideologue out of touch with a changing Virginia electorate. For Cuccinelli, it is his views; for McAuliffe, it is the man.

As far as issues go, the only ones of interest thus far in the fiscal area is that of uranium mining in a southwestern county. Thus far, this issue has been somewhat radioactive (sorry- bad pun). There is a large uranium reserve that could be tapped, but the project is quite controversial. Both candidates have been tip-toeing around the issue although McAuliffe seems to be bending to the environmentalist opposition. McDonnell has bought Cuccinelli some time by appointing a commission to study the issue. The biggest monkey wrench may be the state legislature which is writing regulations as if uranium mining is a foregone conclusion. The other issue is the recent that of the gasoline tax versus a sales tax change. Cuccinelli has attacked the plan as unconstitutional and he may have a very valid point. The plan raises and lowers taxes, ironically, but some of the “hurt” depends on where one lives in the state. Expect this issue to take on added importance as the campaign drags on.

The other issue is abortion. Cuccinelli’s views in this area are well known, firm and established. There will be no compromise or bending in this area. This is a double-edged sword and may very well test GOP messaging over this issue. Already, certain verbal gaffes have been made, most notably the equating of abortion with slavery by a prominent donor (and Cuccinelli himself) in a state that was the former center of the Confederacy. This, to some, is an incendiary remark that merely throws fuel on a small fire and elevates the subject in Virginia perhaps higher than it should be. On the abortion issue, this race may help resolve the debate as to whether the GOP has the right position on the issue or whether it is the messaging of that position needs tweaking. This then leads to the conundrum of whether Cuccinelli is the correct person for that task. Personally, I err on the side of ideological principle and fully expect McAuliffe to use Cuccinelli’s heartfelt beliefs as a vision for the future of women in Virginia- barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. It is false, but when has that ever stopped a Democrat?

Most political observers view this race as a dead heat and staying that way until the end, much like the Allen-Kaine Senate race in 2012. We all know the outcome there. But Terry McAuliffe is no Tim Kaine in the eyes of Virginians. The main take from this race’s outcome is that it will come down to which candidate the electorate believes is less unacceptable rather than choosing the most acceptable candidate. At the end of the day, there may be another take from this election: Virginia may want to reconsider their one term and out system for electing Governors.

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