September 16, 2013

The polls show it. The shakeup in his campaign staff confirms it. Republican Ken Cuccinelli is losing Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

Ken Cuccinelli
Ken Cuccinelli (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

The Virginian-Pilot reports: “Some senior staff members working to get Ken Cuccinelli elected governor have had their roles redefined in a move that insiders say was made to reinvigorate the Republican’s campaign.” When politicians try to “reframe” the race and assure “anxious supporters and donors,” you know there is a problem.

Sometimes when things aren’t going well, a campaign reorganization can help. But more often, it is just a case of rearranging deck chairs. The problem in Cuccinelli’s case is not who does what task in the campaign but rather the candidate’s inability to connect with voters beyond his hard-core base.

Contrast his campaign with that of incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who ran on a meat-and-potatoes platform, assiduously courting voter-rich Northern Virginia. Aside from accusing his opponent of wanting to raise taxes (and boxing him into that position in a critical debate), McDonnell stuck to his own message. His message and demeanor were calm, controlled and nonthreatening to voters who had voted for President Obama just a year before. That’s how McDonnell won going away, even taking Fairfax County, the most populous and increasingly Democratic county in the state.

Cuccinelli has spent so much time attacking Democrat Terry McAuliffe — who, granted, is a juicy target — that he has failed to make himself the better alternative. McAuliffe may be a shady businessman, many voters concede, but why would Cuccinelli be any better as governor? He hasn’t answered that question.

Cuccinelli’s problems are exacerbated by McAuliffe’s sharp and omnipresent campaign aimed at women in Northern Virginia. The TV ads bombard voters with the message that Cuccinelli is hostile or indifferent to the concerns of today’s Virginia voters. Democratic ads slam him for opposing the Violence Against Women Act, opposing abortion even in cases of incest or rape, encouraging civil disobedience to oppose the Obamacare birth-control mandate (a view which Dems cast as anti-contraception) and championing a controversial “personhood” bill.

Cuccinelli has responded with a non sequitur, reminding voters that in college he worked on preventing assaults against women and in public office he’s worked to end human trafficking. That’s all well and good, many voters will conclude, but once elected, is he going to focus on his highly divisive agenda, one that obviously animates him? Cuccinelli hasn’t given them any assurance (e.g. I think Virginia has enough laws on the books). This in part explains the double-digit gap Cuccinelli faces with women.

The Star Scientific scandal also has been a drag on Cuccinelli, highlighted by his decision to give $18,000 (the value of disputed gifts) to charity. But the problem is broader than that.

Cuccinelli isn’t coming across as very likable or relatable. Opinionated? Yes. Experienced? Yes (voters say he’s got enough government service). But how does he do on the critical question of whether voters believe he really cares, if you will, about people like them (the key question on which Mitt Romney lost, 80 percent to 20 percent, against Obama)? Poorly.

Cuccinelli’s record and rhetoric suggest he’s always had his eye on national issues and identified with the right wing of the GOP. That might not have been a problem 10 or 20 years ago. However, Virginia is not the state it was, say, when George Allen was governor.

The state has prided itself on getting things done while the federal government is dysfunctional. Its politics is referred to as “the Virginia way” — a cordiality and respect that is quaint these days. Cuccinelli’s hard edges and confrontational approach appeal to national conservatives but are generally a turn-off in Virginia.

It’s unclear whether Cuccinelli can or will change that perception. He is, after all, hard-edged and confrontational. He is as anti-abortion as a politician can be without banning abortions altogether. He will fight with the Obama administration. Coming across as something different at this stage may only lead to claims of opportunism.

Cuccinelli supporters say McAuliffe is just as bad, in his own way. But he doesn’t come across as such to the average, non-ideological voter. For one thing, he’s not as well known (the Clinton administration is ancient history for a lot of voters); for another, he doesn’t seem driven by ideology. (Self-advancement? Certainly. But calling a politician shady these days isn’t necessarily a winning argument, especially if, like Cuccinelli, you have your own ethics issues). These days average voters, especially in Virginia, are in no mood for pols preaching ideology at a fever pitch.

This is a long way of saying that Cuccinelli isn’t a good fit for areas of the state with the most people. Maybe he can finally breakthrough, but for now McAuliffe is looking to voters like the lesser of the two evils.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.