While much can be said of the execution of the McAuliffe campaign, perhaps more interesting is how Ken Cuccinelli managed to squander four decades of precedent and Republicans’ inherent demographic advantages in a midterm election. Seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, Cuccinelli – the nation’s first attorney general to file a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act – started 2013 with a book tour that brought him to Iowa and New Hampshire with an eye toward 2016. But after a campaign in which he never led a poll after July, the one-time conservative hero was so unpopular that Republicans questioned if his unfavorability was a drag on the rest of the ticket.
Republicans were eager to pin their failures during the 2012 election on poor candidates deemed out-of-touch with mainstream voters. But the defeat of Cuccinelli’s orthodox conservatism is an indication that the problem lies in the positions and values of the Republican Party. The more voters learn about Republican candidates, the less they like them. These are the lessons to be drawn from the fall of Cuccinelli:
The Republican War on Women is Still Costing Them Elections
Ken Cuccinelli’s anti-women record was a focal point in the Virginia governor’s race, and it favored Terry McAuliffe. According to the late-October Washington Post poll, Cuccinelli trailed McAuliffe by 24 points among women. Cuccinelli’s firmly pro-life stance was seen as extremist by general election voters, and precluded him from being able to connect with them on other issues. Unable to downplay or distance himself from his radical past, he was not helped by groups like the Susan B. Anthony List who came in to “help” him, unable to realize that the Republican war on women will continue to cost them dearly with voters.
Tea Party Conservatism is a Liability for Republicans
Despite their long-since-forgotten autopsy after the 2012 debacle, the Republican Party has made no effort to appeal to voters turned off by the party’s most extreme positions. Instead of distancing themselves from the far-right Tea Partiers, Republicans across the board continue to embrace these polarizing figures to their own detriment.
Cuccinelli’s extremism was amplified when viewed in conjunction with national figures in his party. His comments comparing immigrants to rats echoed the national story that developed from Rep. Steve King’s comparison of immigrants to dogs, compounded by Cuccinelli’s praise for King as “one of [his] very favorite Congressmen.” And while Virginia suffered a disproportionate burden of the government shutdown, Cuccinelli had trouble explaining to Virginia voters his previous comments arguing that the Senate needed “more Ted Cruzes.”
In the Age of Research and Tracking, There’s No Hiding From Your Past
Cuccinelli’s decade of using his public office as a conservative crusader was enabled by an election strategy that focused instead on economic issues. Video of Cuccinelli bragging to a conservative audience about a previous win confirmed as much: “[We] told the Post we were talking about transportation. They bought it.” The difference this year was that Democrats didn’t let him redefine himself.
In an August interview with the Washington Post, Cuccinelli tried to pull one over on Virginia voters again when he claimed, “I have a flat position: I’m not touching contraception while I’m governor.” But he was caught red-handed less than 24 hours later when evidence from the historical record rebutted his claim. A 2007 personhood bill he sponsored would have banned many forms of contraception, and he wrote a 2003 letter to colleagues in which he argued that emergency contraception was not a form of birth control.
And Cuccinelli’s running mate, E.W. Jackson learned the hard way that video doesn’t lie. Questioned about his history of hateful statements towards the LGBT community, Jackson attempted to defend himself by claiming that the comments were taken out of context. But NewsChannel 8 simply played the video – unedited and in context.
The lesson here for Republican candidates is simple: you will be held accountable for what you say and believe.
The Steady Jab Can Be Just as Damaging as the Knockout Punch
Unlike Todd Akin or George Allen in 2006, there’s no defining moment that one can point to as the moment Cuccinelli lost the campaign. But in a sense, one might want to return to Cuccinelli’s decision not to resign as Attorney General to run for Governor.
Cuccinelli’s decision ignored decades of precedent, opening him to criticism when American Bridge caught him skipping a meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on School & Campus Safety for a campaign event. It also added relevancy to the conflict of interest accusations that surfaced around his connection to Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams. Cuccinelli’s failure to disclose gifts he received from Williams, and his obstinate refusal to return them, allowed Democratic groups to hammer Cuccinelli while similar concerns transformed Gov. McDonnell from an asset to a liability. Cuccinelli’s inability to address his culpability in the Southwest Virginia gas royalties case added to the ethics concerns surrounding his tenure as Attorney General. Democratic groups pursued every development in the story, and each punch landed accumulated into a cohesive narrative that shaped the campaign.
What Worked Nationally in 2012 Can Work in the States
A recent POLITICO article detailed the unprecedented level of coordination between Democratic outside groups in taking down Ken Cuccinelli. The effort was a state-scaled version of the national model that allowed Democratic outside groups to overcome Republican Super PACs’ significant spending advantage in the 2012 election. Each organization, from labor to environment to Planned Parenthood, focused on their area of expertise, coordinating the timing and targeting of their messaging. With attention to the nuances of each state, it’s a feat that can be duplicated across the country for Senate and Governors’ races in 2014.
Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to be the answer to conservative complaints that Republicans had lost battleground elections in recent years by nominating candidates who were not conservative enough. Instead, he became just the latest cautionary tale for Republicans in how to lose winnable elections. The factors that contributed to Cuccinelli’s defeat and McAuliffe’s victory were not unique to this race; Republicans across the country will face those same factors in 2014. So long as they’re beholden to their extreme Tea Party positions, they’ll be vulnerable to an informed electorate holding them accountable for their out-of-touch views.