Why Ken Cuccinelli will lose in Virginia and what it means for the GOP
Ken Cuccinelli, currently behind in the polls by more than seven points, will not win the November election to become Virginia’s next governor. This spells very serious problems for the Republican Party that I’m (mostly) proud to support. But the problems aren’t those that many party insiders are likely to harp on. Instead, they’re fundamental issues related to style and governance.
First, however, it’s important to dismiss the easy excuses that some party insiders will throw around after what seems like an almost sure whomping at the polls. Cuccinelli’s campaign has not been particularly bad. In fact, it has put together the single best campaign ad I’ve seen in recent memory — this great spot about the attorney general working to free a wrongly convicted man. Cuccinelli himself is pretty good on the stump, smart in debates and hasn’t made any George Allen-style gaffes while on the trail.
Hot button issues that obsess the left, like climate change and abortion, haven’t had much of an impact either. I work on climate change issues myself and believe they should be taken seriously but I have a hard time imagining a case where they would determine how I would vote in a state-level race. Polls show that other Americans don’t care much about climate change either. And states have almost no ability to impact global climate anyway.
Abortion probably does sway a few votes but, again, there’s very little that Cuccinelli or any other candidate in any state can or will do about the overwhelming majority of abortions that take place during the first nine weeks of pregnancy. People who actually vote pro-choice on abortion issues almost universally support partial birth abortions (a barely disguised form of infanticide that’s overwhelming unpopular) and wouldn’t support any candidate who describes him or herself as “pro-life” anyway.
So then, what gives? Two things stand out.
First, Cuccinelli’s own style and emphasis doesn’t reassure anyone who isn’t already a committed movement conservative. It’s fine, even refreshing, to see a politician who always speaks his mind, but when that mind is obsessed with culture war issues, it’s not helpful to most voters.
Republicans who want to win need to take a gentler, funnier, less serious style more in the mode of Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie and current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Cuccinelli hasn’t learned this.
Second, Republican candidates, particularly at the state and local level, must do more to describe how they will actually govern. No matter who was actually responsible for the shutdown (I’d personally blame both Democrats and Republicans), the public certainly blames Republicans and federal spending-heavy Virginia felt its consequences most severely. This puts more pressure on Republicans to put forward a positive agenda.
Since McDonnell has governed well by investing in transportation and schools while maintaining the state’s AAA bond rating and avoiding large tax increases, Cuccinelli had a record to run on. But, inexplicably, he hasn’t done that. While the candidate’s webpage has some good wonky ideas about offering $10,000 bachelor’s degrees, many of his plans for governing remain undeveloped. His energy and environment agenda, for example, is almost all blather about the need to “drill baby, drill” while ignoring that Virginia isn’t a major energy producer and won’t be in the future. What’s advertised as a “detailed policy plan for jobs” consists of a one-page plan to cut taxes. While I personally think this is a good idea — provided that one can find enough spending cuts to maintain the state’s AAA bond rating — it’s hardly much of a vision for governing.
These problems, furthermore, are symptomatic of problems the GOP faces almost everywhere else in the country. Unless the party changes its style and develops a different agenda for governing, Republicans are going to lose a lot more elections like the one in Virginia.