Moderation Proves Key to Victory in Virginia
Published: Thursday, October 31, 2013
Updated: Friday, November 1, 2013 00:11
With less than a week before elections, it appears that Virginia choose Terry McAuliffe as its next executive, putting an Democrat back in the state house.
As the "first friend" of President Clinton, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and now a start-up executive, McAuliffe is the epitome of a wheeler-dealer. His friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton is so deep that he secured the family’s mortgage for the Chappaqua, N.Y. home they purchased after vacating the White House.
While it isn’t unusual for a well-connected Democrat to be invited to sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom or to work in a coveted European embassy, winning a term in a Southern governor’s mansion is remarkable. Yet McAuliffe is leagues ahead in this Virginian race.
Local headlines have surely contributed to what will likely be a landslide victory; term-limited Republican Governor Bob McDonnell is being investigated for accepting unreported gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams.
Still, the race to succeed McDonnell might have turned out differently if the Virginia GOP hadn’t abandoned its traditional primary in favor of a convention that handed disproportionate power to its most conservative members. Instead of backing the conciliatory and well-respected Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, the Republicans nominated Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who made his name fighting the Affordable Care Act and espousing conservative views on contentious social issues.
The convention backfired when conservative activists nominated E.W. Jackson for lieutenant governor. Virtually everyone who has encountered the eccentric, financially insolvent preacher has found him unfit to serve. Even the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch described him as "frightening."
For Democrats, however, his selection was a blessing in disguise. In Jackson, they found a candidate with views almost identical to Cuccinelli’s but without the means to conceal them. Digging beneath Cuccinelli’s carefully polished image, Virginia voters realized that he was — for better or worse — an extremist.
Nowhere do Cuccinelli’s views seem to clash more with an increasingly purple Virginia than over the issue of abortion. In recent years, Democrats have achieved pro-choice support.
In the 2004 presidential race, when John Kerry was soundly beaten 54 to 45 percent in Virginia, abortion was an issue that fired up the conservative base but left the Democrats confounded. George W. Bush advocated anti-choice policies, including bans on so-called "partial birth" abortions and increased parental notification rules.
Today, however, the issue seems to have reached a tipping point. Cuccinelli has advocated policies that aim to actually take away a woman’s right to choose. He has espoused onerous regulations on clinics and a vague "personhood" law. To the suburban women — and men — who decide elections in Virginia, this doesn’t fly.
Cuccinelli has failed to don a veneer of conciliation and has masked his true right-wing views. Only days after the government shutdown left thousands of Virginians on furlough, Cuccinelli misguidedly brought architects of the shutdown, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), through the state on a campaign swing.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, has used his reputation as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker to his advantage. Although he is a Democratic partisan by definition, he has emphasized his ability to forge relationships and get things done. Even his support of a potentially unpopular transportation plan was better than Cuccinelli’s less-than-constructive opposition.
For many, this year’s race has proved uninspiring. Newspapers and pundits alike have bemoaned the quality of the candidates. I believe it illustrates two important lessons. After two decades, the culture war is no longer a winning recipe for Republicans. And after five years of fighting Obama, gridlock isn’t working either.
Evan Hollander is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. State of Play appears every other Friday.