November, 6th 2013

What we should have learned from the Virginia gubernatorial election

– Liz Mair

Last night, I was asked by a reporter what I thought the lessons from the Virginia gubernatorial election would be for Democrats and Republicans.

Since this is the topic of the day, I figured I'd post a little something on this point here (largely repeating what I sent said reporter), so people know where I stand on it, as an observer of the race and a Virginia voter. For a lot of you, this is unlikely to make for pleasant reading. But it is my honest, and unvarnished, opinion, for whatever it is worth.

First, I fear the lessons that should be taken away from the election are not those that will be taken away by the parties. This is a stinging defeat for Republicans, and a lot of us are going to be licking our wounds today and trying to find some way of making it hurt less. Usually, that involves making excuses that should not be made. By the same token, a lot of Democrats are over-jubiliant about the result. This is fine with me, as they will take away "lessons" from what happened that are, in fact, wrong. This gives Republicans something to exploit. I hope we do.

But for now, here are the lessons I think should be taken away from what happened, in no particular order of priority. [intro]

1) Obamacare remains a problem and a big hurdle for a lot of people-- contrary to what I frankly expected when the law was passed (yes! I personally revile the law, just as I revile Romneycare... but I expected that by this time, most voters would have come to love their new government program, because, well, I'm cynical enough to think people ultimately end up liking shit that is branded as free... even when it really is shit, and it's not actually free. I was wrong! People still are far from sold on this one. That's good.) 
Bottom line: Democrats had better be careful about how they talk about health care going forward. Cheerleading about Obamacare or glossing over the numerous problems with it or trying to deflect by saying the GOP isn't trying to fix it and is just politicizing things and engaging in rampant showboating for partisan ends simply isn't going to fly in a lot of places where Ds need to win. People are angry about the policy itself-- let me repeat that, people are angry about the policy itself-- as well as the website problems and the rollout difficulties. They're being told that they must buy something that to a lot of people looks like a sub-par product, especially against the promises made, and without a functional 21st century way of doing it; a lot of people are losing insurance and are not thrilled about that, given promises made and given the options they're seeing for replacing it. The fact that all of this is being extensively covered in a media market which a huge number of Virginians read (we neighbor DC, remember) undoubtedly contributed to the problem.
But make no mistake, the problem would exist, regardless of what media coverage from the Beltway looked like.
2) Which leads us to lesson number two. There is no substitute for good governance (this is, by the way, evident from both the VA and NJ results), and the Obamacare mess has shown a lot of voters in Virginia that good governance is not something Democrats are excelling at right now. Don't believe me? You can also see a good indicator of this when you look at attitudes shown in polls here about responsibility for the government shutdown-- voters here did not blame Republicans over Democrats by any notable margin. In sum, given points 1 and 2, Democrats better get their shit together where Obamacare is concerned. It is a big deal, and in ways that many of us Republicans actually did not predict. Too many national-level Democrats are pretending it's a smaller thing than it really is. They are out of touch and it's going to hurt them.
3) Money does matter. There has been a lot of commentary about spending disparities in this race, and a lot of conservatives are pissed off that the RNC and/or RGA didn't do more to help Cuccinelli. I've also heard people gripe that Cuccinelli just didn't want to put in the time or effort to do hardcore fundraising. This latter thing, if true, is a problem-- especially if you're running against the former national Democratic Party money man. But...
4) Money isn't the only thing that matters, especially when you operate in a state where your every move will be covered by the Washington Post and other major national media, and where that state also happens to be one of the top three swing states in the country that political reporters got used to covering extensively courtesy of the 2012 election.
In all but the deepest red states-- and let's be honest with ourselves, Virginia is looking a lot more indigo than it did even four years ago-- Republicans had better watch it with the social issues positioning and chatter. This stuff is like crack to the national media, it makes for great attack ads, and much of it is about as appealing to key demographics (check out the Cuccinelli single women numbers, ladies!) as very large, very fresh dog turds (mmmm! Nummy!). Frankly, it also affects your campaign financing-- a lot of donors inherently freak out when they see people veering into some of the territory Cuccinelli did, so it's unwise on a couple of different counts, actually.
This is not to say that Republicans in all but the bluest of states need to go pro-choice (yes, I'm pro-choice, but contrary to popular belief, I don't actually think there's a political rationale for the GOP to en masse switch its position on abortion). Bob McDonnell is very overtly pro-life, and he won cleanly in Virginia just four years ago (as did Cuccinelli himself, notably in a race where he did not emphasize social issues nearly as much as he did this one-- guns and property rights loomed larger); Tim Kaine has, throughout his career, positioned himself as a pro-life Democrat to a greater or lesser degree. 
But it is to say that perhaps having half or a third of your state hearing nothing about you for weeks other than "this guy is asking the Supreme Court to reverse themselves on laws criminalizing sodomy where they're never going to, and he claims it's not about gay people though he has a history of taking a very conservative stance as well as a very attention-grabbing tone on gay things" isn't very constructive for keeping positives high and negatives low. This is especially true when your nickname in political circles has, for some time, been "the Ayatollah Cuccinelli." (The same goes for proposed divorce law tinkering that became very heavily profiled in attack ads).
This stuff is sufficiently problematic that in a state like Virginia, even against a guy who a lot of voters have basically concluded is very possibly an unserious crook who's not even close to being up to the job he's applying for, it's a risk not worth taking. 
Bottom line: You can be socially conservative. But when people see you as veering into Rick Santorum territory and tone as opposed to, say, McDonnell territory and tone, when you're using your official position to advance issues within that territory, it's quite risky. And in a race that was always bound to be close, a risk like that is not worth taking if the priority is doing everything you can to win rather than, say, making a point. (If the point is to make a point, then fine. But just don't be surprised if you can't do that and win if you're running in a state like Virginia).
5) Guns are supposedly this huge liability for Republicans, and this huge asset for Democrats. So says the media, and so says a bunch of polling. Not necessarily so, when you're looking outside the Northeastern US, though.
Cuccinelli did not, on my read, emphasize gun rights nearly as much in this race as he did in 2009 (and more's the pity from my standpoint). But the infusion of Bloomberg money at the end put guns on the agenda to a greater degree than the candidates in the race did.
For gun rights voters, this is always going to provide a huge incentive to vote for the 2nd amendment guy (or girl) even if they find them otherwise unpalatable. Anecdotal evidence last night suggested this happened in Virginia. Gun control advocates care about their issue, but in my experience, they are rarely even close to as passionate as us gun rights voters. Bloomberg would do well to start understanding this. Virginia (and the rest of the country) is changing on social issues. But Virginia (and most of the rest of the country) are not New York City (and given who they elected as mayor last night, this is something we can all be grateful for).
6) The state parties in Virginia are really not doing anything close to the job you would expect to see in a major swing state that shows its importance in pretty much every election going these days. Specifically, they have now come up with pretty terrible and unlikable candidates two elections in a row (Kaine vs Allen-- terrible; McAuliffe vs Cuccinelli-- voters really hated both to an almost incredible extent). They can both do better, and they should. Virginia is not some Wild West state, where third parties get on the ballot with relative ease, but these candidates were so underwhelming that a Libertarian got in the race. Worse for them, he got about 5%. That should make them take notice and start doing more to build benches of people who aren't going to amass such awful unfavorables, at a minimum.

7) Virginia in particular is a state that is changing rapidly in terms of voter profile, demographics and philosophy. This ain't your daddy's Virginia. Act acordingly.

8) Primaries matter not just because of the parties' ability to have a test run where electoral viability is concerned (reminder: We actually ran EW Jackson as our LG nominee, probably one of the worst nomination decisions pretty much ever; if you think Cuccinelli was bad, you obviously missed pretty much all news ever about his undesired running mate). They also matter because they are valuable for voter ID and general election turnout planning efforts. Conventions don't give you those same opportunities. This is a lesson the GOP especially needs to learn. 
Now, based on the commentary I was seeing last night and some early this morning, it doesn't appear that Democrats or Republicans are universally taking those lessons away.
Here are some of the things I think Democrats are seriously wrong about in reading the entrails:
1) People love Obamacare because even when it was in the news in a big, and horrible way, the Democrat won. (My comment: Wow, is this wrong. But I'm fine with Democrats continuing to believe this; it's a very helpful delusion from the GOP's standpoint, for as long as voters remain as unsold on Obamacare as they currently are). 
2) There's no real problem with running terrible candidates as long as you bring up your opponent's abortion record. (My comment: Uh, no, bad idea. You can still win with that candidate, but abortion isn't the trump card many Dems think it is, unless you're in, say, California. Don't believe me? Go look at the numbers in the AG race. Those of us who live in Northern Virginia know one thing about Mark Obenshain from the barrage of ads attacking him-- he's seriously, hardcore pro-life. Yet, he may not have lost, and if he has, it will be by a very thin margin. I don't think the abortion attacks worked).
3) Voters rejected conservatism as a whole yesterday (My comment: Again, uh, no. See the AG's race. Also note that the Libertarian-- Libertarians generally being very economically conservative-- got better than 5%).
Now, here's what some Republicans seem to be misunderstanding:
1) It's OK to run people who look cray-cray to a large swath of voters, just make sure they're well-financed (My comment: Er, no, not unless you're in, say, Oklahoma or Nebraska or Utah or somewhere equivalently conservative. Money played a role, but it was not the only factor, as discussed above, and in states like Virginia, taking unnecessary risks like devoting substantial time in campaign season to pushing SCOTUS on sodomy laws, an endeavor I can't honestly describe as anything but predictably fruitless, isn't really clever, no matter how much money you have. Plus, as noted, how you position yourself on issues, your tone, your apparent priorities, also affect fundraising. Some people in the base may not like this, but it's true).
2) Some Republicans are using this as another opportunity to regurgitate the tired old argument that we should have run Bill Bolling, not Cuccinelli.
Candidly, this argument makes me want to, well, regurgitate. Anyone who thinks that Bolling was significantly different to Cuccinelli on issue stances or tone needs a dose of truth serum or a good slap upside the head. The main differences between Bolling and Cuccinelli were that a) Cuccinelli is largely recognized to be very smart, if also "out there" on an array of issues, b) Cuccinelli is stronger on economic issues and things like property and gun rights, at least in the minds of a lot of activists (and those are assets in a Virginia election) and c) Bolling really suffers from sore-loserdom syndrome. It's fair to say at this point that not very many people love Cuccinelli. But no one likes a whiner, and that's the reputation Bolling has cultivated with a lot of people over recent years. I know this all sounds harsh. But sometimes the truth hurts and yet still needs to be told.
People now need to go away and have a good, long think about all this. 
Personally, I just hope that in 2017, we have better candidates than we did for Senate in 2012 and governor this time. And I hope whoever runs against Mark Warner (maybe even Cuccinelli, preferably as the guy from 2009 more than the guy we saw this year-- that guy can get my vote without a ton of trouble!) takes a few of these thoughts on board.