Two narratives are congealing on the Right in regards to Ken Cuccinelli's excruciatingly close loss in Virginia's gubernatorial race. One one side, grassroots conservatives are pointing fingers at the much-reviled GOP "establishment" for "abandoning" Cuccinelli. On the other, party moderates are defending the national party's cost/benefit analysis of the race and citing the loss as "proof" that Republicans can't afford to nominate very conservative candidates. Each storyline is self-serving and, at best, incomplete. Let's examine both:
(1) "The establishment screwed him!" This accusation is hurled by certain grassroots and Tea Party groups whose penchant for inveighing against center-right allies seems to consume an inordinate amount of their time and energy. As you'll read below, I don't believe GOP party elders are immune from criticism following Cuccinelli's loss, but they are far from the sole culprits in this defeat. It truly was a full team effort. Cuccinelli, who's a sharp guy and a true believer, was not an inspiring candidate. His campaign did precious little to fend off some of the most damaging Democratic attacks that cost him dearly among unmarried women and Northern Virginians -- groups whose overwhelming support pulled McAuliffe over the finish line. Their eleventh-hour focus on Obamacare was a smart call, obviously -- but by the time that meltdown was dominating the news, the comeback climb was too steep. Cuccinelli and his allies were heavily outspent during every phase of the race. In the race's home-stretch, when momentum finally shifted, McAuliffe's ten-to-one spending advantage acted as a crucial buffer. He held off the late onslaught. I'll address the party's contribution to this disparity in a bit, but the conservative base failed Cuccinelli, too. The Washington Examiner reports:
“The GOP establishment,” said the Tea Party Patriots, “left him out hanging to dry.” Added TheTeaParty.net, “If the Republican Party had given Cuccinelli half the resources it had given to Virginia gubernatorial candidates in the past, last night would have been a win." At least two other Tea Party groups also slammed the RNC for spending $3 million on Cuccinelli and helping him with his get out the vote effort, but nothing more. And several have retweeted this: “In 2009, the RNC spent $9M to win VA by 17 points. Looks like it'll have spent $3M in 2013 to lose by a hair. Dummies.” Washington Tea Party went further in a tweet: "WHO NEEDS TO REMOVED NOW? @BarackObama WHO NEEDS TO BE REMOVED IN 2014? ALL @TheDemocrats AND ALL THE @GOP LEADERS SIMPLE 'TRUTH' " But according to a donor search, none of those groups gave any money to the Republican or made independent expenditures for Cuccinelli, who lost by 2.4 percentage points to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, raising cries of hypocrisy from Republican associates who argue that Tea Party groups sold out their candidate.
Lambasting the establishment for not giving Cuccinelli enough money looks a lot like empty posturing from groups who didn't fork over any of their own cash. Put up or shut up. It's become an article of faith among many conservatives that shadowy establishment types can always be counted upon to undermine true conservative candidates. Given that a lot of people believe this, shouldn't they have eagerly risen up to fund and support a nominee who's cut from their cloth? Put another way, if one subscribes to the theory that the party's problem is that it too often paints in pale pastels rather than bold colors, one really ought to mobilize to affirm that thesis when presented with the opportunity. Yet the conservative cash tsunami never materialized for Cuccinelli, whose fundraising totals were rather weak throughout the race. Perhaps conservatives were too distracted by the quixotic and doomed "defund Obamacare" gambit -- which became the divisive conservative purity test du jour -- to bother with Cuccinelli. So while Republicans fought amongst themselves in Washington, a purest-of-the-pure gubernatorial nominee in a key swing state was in urgent need of help, and received far less than he needed.
(2) "The establishment did its part; very conservative candidates are the problem." The Republican National Committee committed far less money to this race than it did to Gov. Bob McDonnell's successful Virginia campaign four years ago. McDonnell won in a blow-out, and led comfortably in polls throughout the contest. Cuccinelli's race was very close for awhile, before McAuliffe began to pull away. Should the RNC have spent more money this year? Jim Geraghty has a good point/counterpoint on this question, and Carol is right that parties tend to pull back on resources when a candidate looks like he or she is destined for a loss. But as she also acknowledges, there was genuine late movement in this race, and Republicans failed to capitalize on it. Jonah Goldberg:
I don’t understand why, when ObamaCare became a big issue, the RNC couldn’t have done more. I’m sure it’s hard to ramp up at the last second. But so what? Things are going to be hard in lots of ways for as far as the eye can see. Hard can’t be an excuse anymore.
Exactly. The Republican Governors Association (which has been pretty damn impressive over the last few cycles) also deserves some second guessing for the timing and nature of their support. The RGA's financial commitment to Cuccinelli was substantial, but was the money spent wisely? I'm sympathetic to the RNC's argument that they needed to stay within their Virginia budget to avoid taking out a reckless loan to bankroll a dead-end campaign. But why on earth did they give Chris Christie $1.5 million? Investing in minority outreach efforts was clearly a worthwhile endeavor, but couldn't Christie's well-funded operation have picked up that tab? Incidentally, I don't fault Christie for declining to take his eye of the New Jersey ball to go campaign for Cuccinelli, but I don't see why he needed any national money. Padding Christie's stats wasn't worth withholding a single available dime from Cuccinelli. Even if the race hadn't tightened organically, the RNC should have done everything within its power to help Cuccinelli if for no other reason than to to put a dent into McAuliffe's margin of victory. A big win for him would have invited loads of analysis about how the Clinton team cleaned up in a purple state. So tamping down the 'Clinton invincibility' narrative would have been money well spent. Luckily, Obamacare intervened and spoiled the Democrats' party. Also, is the RNC not attuned to the level of distrust that a large segment of the base harbors for the party? Cuccinelli is a true conservative's true conservative. Any appearance of abandonment was going to inevitably raise hackles and fuel "the establishment screwed us again" anger. Why not head off those critiques by going to the mat for Cuccinelli? Plus, if they'd fought to the bitter end, national Republicans would have been in a much better position to help take advantage of the Obamacare surge. In a busy election year with lots of races, triage is critical. 2013 was not one of those years. For all intents and purposes, the Virginia governor race was the only major, contested statewide race in the country. Christie was a lock in New Jersey. Helping Cuccinelli should have been priority number one.
Parting thoughts: Once the furious blamestorming subsides, the center-right coalition needs to learn some lessons from Tuesday's results. First and foremost, candidates matter immensely. A more compelling candidate in Virginia could have won, despite the spending imbalance. But money matters, too. A lot. If Republicans allow the other side to define their nominees in the public's imagination via dishonest and unfair smears, they're going to continue to lose a lot of winnable races. If the conservative base insists on nominating highly ideological candidates, they need to remain engaged and see things through to the end when they get their wish. And it's incumbent on the national party to deploy resources effectively, based on a clear and ongoing understanding of campaign dynamics. It looks like neither side held up its end of the bargain in Virginia. The result? Governor McAuliffe.