The Cuccinelli Blame Game And The GOP Civil War
Accusations of blame are already being tossed around about why Republicans lost in Virginia, and they mirror a broader debate in the Republican Party nationally.
As I predicted before the election, Ken Cuccinelli’s loss in the Virginia Governor’s race has set off a round of finger pointing and blaming. While such a “blame game” would have occurred regardless of what the margin of defeat was, the fact that Terry McAuliffe won by only two points seems to be making the arguments from the pro-Cuccinelli game all the more vehement. If only for the betrayals, they seem to be arguing, we would have had the momentum to put our candidate over the top.
Some Cuccinelli supporters are blaming the people who voted for Libertarian Party nominee Robert Sarvis and, indeed, if you just go by the results, the roughly 6% of the vote that Sarvis received would have been enough to put Cuccinelli over the top. However, that argument presumes that the people who voted for Sarvis would have supported Cuccinelli had he been on the ballot. Given the firmness of Sarvis’s support during the campaign, it’s likely quite likely that a good number of his voters would have simply stayed home on Election Day rather than forced to choose between two unpalatable candidates. Additionally, polling before the election seemed to suggest that Sarvis voters would’ve picked McAuliffe as their nominee by enough of a rate that the additional votes still wouldn’t have been enough for Cuccinelli to win. Nonetheless, it’s likely that many Cuccinelli supporters will continue to believe that it was Sarvis who cost them the election, in no small part because it’s a more comfortable conclusion than blaming the candidate himself. (In this regard, please see Chris Cillizza’s post at The Fix Robert Sarvis didn’t cost Ken Cuccinelli the Virginia governor’s race)
In addition to Sarvis, though, there is significant ire being directed a number of other supposed causes:
RICHMOND — Anyone expecting Ken Cuccinelli and the conservative wing of the Virginia GOP to lie down and admit defeat was disappointed Tuesday night.
After Cuccinelli’s closer-than-expected loss, the defiant candidate and his supporters said the election results were only a blip on the radar of the larger conservative struggle as they blamed the defeat on Obamacare and a deluge of Democratic attack ads. Some Cuccinelli backers privately steamed that the national party did not do more to shore up Cuccinelli against Democrat Terry McAuliffe and his enormous war chest.
The Republican candidate’s surprise showing touched off a round of recriminations among the GOP’s conservative and moderate wings — between Republicans who say Cuccinelli’s strict profile on social issues antagonized critical middle-of-the-road voters and those who say a good conservative candidate was tossed overboard by his party leadership. A lopsided Democratic victory might have given moderates a clear leg up in that debate; instead, the battle between the two factions over what – if anything – needs to change is bound to rage on.
“This isn’t a total loss at all,” Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins told the crowd after Cuccinelli conceded the governor’s race. “Keep in mind that Terry McAuliffe got less than 50 percent of the vote, so he does not have a mandate to do anything. And looking at the House races … we still have a [Republican-led] House that will block any crazy ideas he may have.”
Mullins blasted out-of-state Democratic money and media bias as the major sources of Cuccinelli’s problems in the race.
By “outside forces,” Republicans are primarily referring to the boatload of outside money that Terry McAuliffe was able to bring into the campaign over the past year, a process that was made easier by the fact that Virginia has no real limits on the amount that someone can contribute to an individual campaign. For example, the largest single contribution to any candidate in Virginia this year came from Napster co-founder, and first President of Facebook, Sean Parker, who wrote out a check for $500,000 to McAuliffe in mid-October. Cuccinelli, by contrast, received very little money from out of state, even from the Tea Party groups that have typically helped fund candidacies such as his in the past. Of course, Cuccinelli was at a distinct disadvantage here to begin with. He never has been very big at fundraising in his previous races, and he was going up against the guy who had spent a many year raising tens of millions of dollars for Bill Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. With a rolodex like that, it’s no surprise that McAuliffe won the fundraising game. At the same time, though, it’s kind of lame for Virginia Republicans to blame this “outside support when they barely made any effort to raise funds for their candidate outside the state to begin with. Whether it’s the state party, or Cuccinelli himself, there was nothing about this race that prevented Cuccinelli from engaging in better fundraising. Given who they were going up against, they should have known what McAuliffe was going to be able to bring to the table. The fact that they were not able to compete in that area strikes me as being their fault, not his and not the fault of those outside supporters that supported McAuliffe.
In addition to “outside forces,” though, there’s also ire being directed at fellow Republicans:
[B]ecause the race came so close, far right Republicans blame the GOP establishment for not doing more to give Cuccinelli a boost. The Republican National Committee put $9 million into Gov. Bob McDonnell’s campaign in 2009. This year, Cuccinelli got $3 million. Cuccinelli “was betrayed by his own party,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners on Wednesday afternoon, but the betrayal was not a surprise. Limbaugh said:
“In Virginia the GOP simply didn’t want a Tea Party candidate winning there. They just didn’t. ‘Cause they coulda won that race, folks. I mean, it’s really a shame. I was gonna say stunning, but it really isn’t stunning.”
Limbaugh, like many other conservatives, argues that contrary to the media narrative — Republicans win when they’re moderates like Chris Christie and lose when they’re conservatives like Cuccinelli — the opposite is true. Conservatives just need to be given a chance to thrive. But instead, resources were withheld from Cuccinelli, “So now the Republican establishment can run around and claim the Tea Party is an albatross around their neck.” Conservative radio host Mark Levin tweeted Wednesday morning that Cuccinelli’s loss was “RINO sabotage.” Levin referred to reports that Chris Christie refused to campaign for Cuccinelli, and linked to a Breitbart.com story noting that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s former chief of staff joined the McAuliffe campaign.
Meanwhile, a Cucccinelli adviser blames the Republican Govenor’s Association and Bobby Jindal:
Bobby Jindal and his political team totally blew it,” harrumphed one advisor for Ken Cuccinelli the morning after a closer-than-expected loss.
Cuccinelli, who narrowly lost last night’s gubernatorial election to Terry McAuliffe, was badly outspent in the days and weeks leading up to the election. The New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin described Cuccinelli’s plight as having been “close to abandoned at the end.” He was. As Politico’s James Hohmann reported, ”The Republican National Committee spent about $3 million on Virginia this year, compared to $9 million in the 2009.” And as the Roanoke Times noted, in 2009, the Chamber of Commerce spent $973,000 on Bob McDonnell, but “[t]his year, the chamber gave Cuccinelli nothing.”
“Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign is over,” said the Cuccinelli advisor. “He screwed this up so bad. And I don’t know why. The campaign knew it was moving numbers over ObamaCare. And the RGA was not very far from that information, they could have obtained it themselves,” the advisor continued. “They should have given the money to the campaign to spend as opposed to running these stupid China ads. They just blew it.”
To be sure, the Cuccinelli campaign did seem to bring to the forefront long simmering tensions in the Republican Party between the Tea Party and the more “establishment” wing of the party. Nowhere was this most apparent than inside the Republican Party of Virginia itself where the bad blood between Cuccinelli and Lt. Governor Bill Bolling over the former’s decision to seek the Governor’s office this year notwithstanding what many believed was “gentlemen’s agreement” that Bolling would be the next in line to succeed Bob McDonnell after having stood aside for McDonnell in 2009. Bolling not only refused to endorse Cuccinelli but peppered the press with plenty of negative comments about Virginia’s Attorney General and even considered running as an Independent for Governor before abandoning the idea and spending the election season performing his regular duties and trout fishing on the weekends. Led in no small part by Bolling’s disdain, there was a not inconsiderable portion of the what might be described as old-line Republicans here in the Old Dominion who either sat the election out, or in some cases openly backed McAuliffe over Cuccinelli. And, of course, there were at least some Republicans who backed Sarvis because they could not bring themselves to support a candidate as socially conservative as Cuccinelli.
So, yes, there was disunity on the Republican side that quite probably contributed to Cuccinell’s problems. The question that needs to be asked, though, is whose fault that disunity was and what it means going forward.
Cuccinelli supporters, of course, would put it down to a simple matter of party loyalty, and that Republicans ought to be supporting Republican candidates no matter what. The problem with this argument, though, is that ignores the diversity of opinion that exists inside a modern American political party and assumes that people will support anyone with an R after their name. While this is no doubt true of some people, it’s not universally true, and it often becomes the exception rather than the rule when you’re talking about a candidate that comes with a significant amount of controversy or baggage or controversy attached to them, a description that seems to describe Ken Cuccinelli perfectly.
More broadly, though, the split that we saw in Virginia among Republicans seems to be reflective of something that appears to be happening across the nation. Having stood by and done nothing for the most part for the past three years or so, more traditional Republicans, especially those tied to the business community, are now openly making moves that clearly designed to take on the Tea Party forces behind candidates like Cuccinelli:
Leaders of the Republican establishment, alarmed by the emergence of far-right and often unpredictable Tea Party candidates, are pushing their party to rethink how it chooses nominees and advocating changes they say would result in the selection of less extreme contenders.
The push comes as the national Republican Party is grappling with vexing divisions over its identity and image, and mainstream leaders complain that more ideologically-driven conservatives are damaging the party with tactics like the government shutdown.
The debate intensified on Wednesday after Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the deeply conservative Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, lost a close race in which Democrats highlighted his opposition to abortion in almost all circumstances, his views on contraception and comments in which he seemed to liken immigration policy to pest control
The party leaders pushing for changes want to replace state caucuses and conventions, like the one that nominated Mr. Cuccinelli, with a more open primary system that they believe will draw a broader cross-section of Republicans and produce more moderate candidates.
Similar pushes are already underway in other states, including Montana and Utah, and last week Mitt Romney said Republicans should consider how to overhaul their presidential nominating process to attract a wider range of voters. He suggested that states holding open primaries be rewarded with more delegates to the party’s national convention.
While the discussion may appear arcane, it reflects a fierce struggle for power between the activist, often Tea Party-dominated wing of the Republican Party — whose members tend to be devoted to showing up and organizing at events like party conventions — and the more mainstream wing, which is frustrated by its inability to rein in the extremist elements and by the fact that its message is not resonating with more voters.
“Conventions by nature force candidates and campaigns to focus on a very small group of party activists,” said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a longtime Virginia-based strategist. He grimaced at the successful movement by conservative activists in his state earlier this year to switch from a primary system to a convention system. “If the goal is actually to win elections, holding more primaries would be a good start.”
With control of the Senate expected to turn on a handful of races around the country next year, Republican leaders are worried about the outcome in Iowa, where a crowded field of G.O.P. candidates has taken shape, including several untested ones. If no one receives 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee will be selected by a convention.
“Conventions have a flimsy track record of selecting the most electable candidates,” David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist, said in an interview on Wednesday. “There’s just no good substitute for a full-scale vetting by a large universe of primary voters.”
Indeed, one can trace the beginning of the rift in the Republican Party of Virginia to the point when Cuccinelli and his supporters, with the support of an RPV State Central Committee that had become dominated by Cuccinelli supporters, abandoned what had become the party’s traditional method of picking its statewide nominees via a primary to select a convention. It was the second time in five years that they had gone this route, the first time being in 2008 when picking a nominee to fill the seat of retiring Senator John Warner, but unlike that first time there was no doubt this time that the convention would result in the selection of a slate of candidates that tacked to the right of the party, and the Commonwealth. Not only did this year’s convention cause Bolling to drop out of the race against Cuccinelli, it also resulted in the selection of E.W. Jackson Jr. as the Lt. Governor nominee despite the fact that it was clear that he was, to put it nicely, just a little bit unhinged. Based on how the election went in Virginia, you can expect to see a battle to move back to a primary system there starting with next year when Republicans will need to pick a nominee to take on Senator Mark Warner.
So, in the end, there is some truth to the part of the “blame game” surrounding Cuccinelli’s loss that points to GOP disunity in the face of a ticket that included people like Cuccinelli and Jackson. However, the reasons for that disunity can be found in something that just seems to be starting, and that’s a battle for the future of the Republican Party.
Update: The original version of this post had formatting errors that likely made it difficult for some readers to follow. They seem to have all been repaired now.