The prospect of a genuine strategic rethink by Virginia Republicans lasted about two hours, before the off base exit polls gave way to a far narrower than expected loss by Ken Cuccinelli—the kind of “might have been” that provokes more rationalizations than insights. Perhaps predictably, I am in the camp that thinks a game plan of squeezing every last drop out of the political base with no credible appeal to the center, and abandoning state issues in the quest for a referendum on national healthcare policy, was actually lucky to hit 46 percent of the vote (and required a final week of Democratic coasting to get that close).
Because the first part of that formulation has been analyzed to death, I’ll dwell on the second part: the curiosity that the famously articulate Cuccinelli never defined on his own terms why his unfettered conservatism was a virtue. In the perverse way that opposites tend to resemble each other, Cuccinelli’s campaign actually mimicked his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe , by avoiding any discussion of much of the policy landscape that will surface on the next governor’s desk: neither nominee got around to addressing the decision by the state’s flagship university to downscale its tuition assistance plan for low income students; both offered weak and shifting positions on the nature of the state’s energy production future; neither spoke to the question of whether federally adopted Common Core standards ought to be adopted in local school districts; and the subject of whether Virginia will move toward softer or tougher standards for unemployment assistance never came up. The unresolved dilemma of what or who will make up the difference if the federal internet sales tax proposals that are intended to finance a chunk of Virginia’s new transportation plan never materialize? It’s a wide open guess that neither would-be governor got around to mentioning.
The one state level issue that was debated in the race that just ended was, of course, whether Virginia should accept federal expansion of its Medicaid program. But “debated” is a relative term, given that Cuccinelli framed the subject almost exclusively as one of whether Virginia should embrace the Affordable Care Act writ large and McAuliffe’s advocacy for expansion never made its way into a single one of about 35 iterations of his statewide ad buy.
McAuliffe’s contribution to the substance free nature of the race at least made political sense: in focusing on Cuccinelli’s hard edged positions, McAuliffe made the point that his opponent’s governorship might pursue its share of distractions and that coalition building was not exactly a dominant part of Cuccinelli’s history. Fair or not, complete or not, that is at least an accounting of the risks in right-wing leadership, and McAuliffe’s shortchanging of specifics was a necessary concession to his own thin public record and his penchant for superficiality over fine print.
In contrast, a Republican candidate with a reputation for smarts and fluency in defending his views left his agenda so vague, so insubstantial that McAuliffe’s parody of those same views was all but uncontested–unless an undecided voter or a moderate Democrat was persuaded that the kind of man who is “attentive to details and serious” (one stunningly bland GOP ad) and who labored to overturn a wrongful conviction (another Cuccinelli spot that got lost in its own weeds) couldn’t possibly wage a crusade against birth control).
My own guess is that Cuccinelli’s advisors concluded that the social issue terrain was too unwinnable to defend and that a counter-attack on McAuliffe for, say, favoring late trimester abortions offered more risk than reward. (and presumably, that reminding voters of Cuccinellii’s principled opposition to mandatory ultrasound exams in advance of abortions would only dampen the fervor of the pro life grassroots who had been career long allies). It is also true that Cuccinelli took a stab at some of the themes that are at the essence of conservative reform—like middle income tax relief and expanding charter schools and parental choice in school district assignments. But the reform bent of his candidacy was overwhelmed by the exponentially greater advertising dollars and rhetorical energy attacking McAuliffe on ethics and investments; and on the related bet that “McAuliffe, the flashy wheeler dealer” would prove more off-putting than “Cuccinelli the extremist.”
It’s telling that a Republican who extols the benefit of state government at the expense of federal power offered such a scattered narrative about what conservative state governance would actually look like. Its telling and depressing that Team Cuccinelli assumed that the substance of a conservative policy platform wouldn’t provide the potential of both energizing his base and co-opting independents. It’s not only the center that seems to lack confidence in its persuasive powers.