A Thousand Cuts

The post-mortem narrative on this election (see results) is starting. Some would say it started two weeks ago, while the patient was still breathing.

One narrative is easy to write. That one says: Ken Cuccinelli is just too conservative and conservatives can’t win a purple state, let alone a purple country. In such a narrative, we need to nominate purple candidates, and will lose until we do so.

While the simplicity of that narrative has its appeal, it fails to account for all the evidence. McCain lost Virginia by a far greater margin than Cuccinelli despite being a much more purple candidate. Romney, no favorite of the conservative base, lost by less than McCain but more than Cuccinelli. As of now, it appears Mark Obenshain, who hardly has a moderate voting record, won narrowly. Cuccinelli won handily statewide four years ago as well.

This election should be considered and post-election analysis can be valuable. Readers should feel free to respectfully share their own analysis in the comments (please be constructive: focus on issues and avoid personal attacks). My sense is that the loss of our top two statewide candidates was a death of a thousand cuts. Here are a few of them:

Environmental factors:

    *Governor Bob McDonnell was targeted by the Washington Post for ethical improprieties. It has not been proven that he broke laws. However, his and Mrs. McDonnell’s gift acceptance did not meet the “smell test” for most Virginians, negatively impacting the GOP ticket. And his failure to disclose all relevant information, especially gifts to family members, will almost certainly be the inspiration for ethics reform. Accurate and thorough reporting is particularly important in a state with campaign finance law based on disclosure. Notably, this is an area to watch McAuliffe like a hawk, as he has already shown his willingness not to report information which would put him at a disadvantage, such as profiting from a scheme to cash in on the insurance policies of terminally ill patients. See: They’d Make McDonnell Resign…
    *The government shutdown was popularly perceived as being the Republican’s fault, negatively affecting the GOP ticket.
    *Sarvis drew votes from both candidates, but conventional wisdom is that he cut more heavily into Cuccinelli’s votes. The concept that his campaign could have been made possible in part by a Democratic donor tends to increase the sting.

Opposition advantages:

    *McAuliffe’s fundraising advantage, roughly 71% from out of state donors, and complemented by independent expenditures, completely overwhelmed the Republican team on messaging, affecting not only Cuccinelli but down-ballet races.

Republican challenges:

While Republicans had many advantages in this race, including men who I believe were good and very good candidates, we did not effectively capitalize on all of our advantages. In hindsight, our team made some strategic errors, including –

    *What appeared to be a “base only” strategy. While it is understandable that a campaign with limited resources would focus on the base, turnout is being called “historic.” It was not light – or a contest between the republican and democratic bases. Cuccinelli, who as a Senator, was experienced in appealing beyond his base to voters concerned with such kitchen table issues as education and transportation, did not get out a focused message that appealed to average voters. We needed to lose Fairfax by a lot less than we did to have a hope of winning. In fact, every vote Terry won by came from Fairfax – and then some. We simply did not make up enough in red counties, yet alone purple areas, like Loudoun and Prince William, which we lost more narrowly, to overcome McAuliffe’s advantage from the Potomac through Fairfax.
    *GOP funders believed the early polls. Polling indicating McAuliffe could not lose the election dried up funding for Cuccinelli in the crucial final weeks of the race, resulting in lies from the McAuliffe campaign going unchallenged in the minds of many voters. In retrospect, it is obvious that more dollars behind the Cuccinelli campaign could have moved the race sufficiently to put Cuccinelli over the top. The RGA & RNC have their fair share of responsibility for the outcome of this election.
    *Apparent lack of a focused message from the gubernatorial campaign. Terry was “fighting for jobs” as every campaign sign proclaimed – despite having terribly job-killing ideas on taxes and energy. Those who know Cuccinelli best would have liked to see an emphasis on Cuccinelli’s compassionate initiatives as a Senator and Attorney General. Cuccinelli’s record in these areas is excellent, from helping free Haynesworth to fighting domestic and sexual violence, to common sense “good government” initiatives to reduce waste and fight fraud. To be fair, many of these messages did come from the campaign, but in a way that seemed more scattered than focused, and, without sufficient resources behind them, the volume was too low to make the necessary impact.
    *Despite choosing not to run in the Republican nomination contest, Bill Bolling continued to publicly snipe at Ken Cuccinelli throughout the campaign. While the extent of his role as a spoiler may be over-estimated by some, there is no doubt that his public comments on the race were not helpful to Republican interests and that some of Bolling’s supporters did not actively support Cuccinelli. [UPDATE: As reported by the VPAP, SBE data shows 4,611 write-in votes for AG. (There were 10K write-ins for Governor.)] While some may blame the GOP nomination method, it should be remembered that most of our recent statewide victories, including those of Bill Bolling & Bob McDonnell in 2009, followed a convention.
    *Media assistance to Democrats is, perhaps, a given. Maybe it belongs in environmental factors as something we shouldn’t complain about but rather adjust for. Nevertheless, the utter lack of curiosity from much of the major media about McAuliffe related scandals, combined with a willingness to trumpet any hint of scandal that could be tied to a Republican, however tenuously, was a contributor to the outcome of this election. Which makes it all the more interesting when left-of-center propaganda sites express amazement at the results.

Republican victories:
There were plenty of problems in this election but the news isn’t all bad –

    *Great volunteers and a dedicated ground operation made liars of the pollsters. Thanks largely to a volunteer army, operating with conviction, courage and constancy, Cuccinelli / Jackson / Obenshain messaging spread in spite of a massive funding disparity. Volunteers advocated for their values in conversations with friends, church members, neighbors, co-workers and family. The result was a much closer election than predicted.
    *The failure of the healthcare.gov website combined with notices of cancellation from insurers and drastically increasing rates on insurance for many families gave Cuccinelli a late environmental advantage.
    *Delegate races went well and many GOP delegates out-performed the top of the ticket in their districts. The House of Delegates will provide a critical counter-balance to the extremes of McAuliffe’s agenda.
    *Republicans have an opportunity to re-capture the Senate with a special election in Northam’s district. Expect Terry McAuliffe to pour lots of money in that one too.

There are lots of reasons why this election went as it did. There are surely more to add to this short analysis – as I’m sure you will.

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