A nominating convention helped put Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on the gubernatorial ballot. It might also sink his chance to win.
Nominating conventions turn out the most committed and partisan members of the party. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a more moderate Republican, dropped out of the race for governor because he knew the convention would favor Cuccinelli. And at the convention this past weekend, Cuccinelli won -- but so did the Rev. E.W. Jackson, lieutenant governor candidate and a fiery conservative. Within hours, news organizations had dug up scores of controversial comments made by Jackson about abortion, homosexuality and the Democratic party. Among other things, he has compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan and referred to gays in the military as "sexually twisted."
All that could be a problem for Cuccinelli, who is tacking to the middle in his campaign against Democrat Terry McAuliffe. His focus is on the economy, not the social conservatism that fueled his own rise in GOP politics. Jackson's place on the GOP ticket gives fuel to Democrats who aim to paint Cuccinelli as an extremist.
"We’re in a deep [expletive]," said one Virginia Republican strategist. "The only good news is that the Democrats have Terry McAuliffe. It’s the only thing keeping us glued to a chance of victory."
Asked if Jackson was trouble, another senior Virginia Republican responded, "Oh. My. God. Yes." The danger, the Republican said, is that Jackson will bring Democrats to the polls who might otherwise stay home. "You just don’t want one candidate to rile up the base of the other side. That's what you're trying to avoid."
In Virginia, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately. Ticket-splitting happens.* In 2005, current Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) beat former state Sen. Leslie Byrne (D) and served with Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. Byrne was an unabashedly liberal candidate; Kaine ran as a moderate.
Another relevant case is 1993, when conservative homeschooling activist Michael Farris ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket. He lost to Democrat Don Beyer by a wide margin even as Republican George Allen won the gubernatorial race and Republican Jim Gilmore the race for attorney general.
And Cuccinelli himself was elected as attorney general on the same ticket as Bolling, despite very different political styles.
In an interview with The Post the day after the convention, Cuccinelli indicated that he would not be answering for Jackson's controversial beliefs.
“I am just not going to defend my running mates’ statements at every turn,” he said. “They've got to explain those themselves. Part of this process is just letting Virginia voters get comfortable with us, on an individual basis, personally.”
After the convention, the Republican candidates embarked on a traditional group tour of the state. Beyond that, it won't be surprising if we rarely see Cuccinelli campaigning with Jackson after that. But if he puts too much distance between himself and Jackson, Cuccinelli risks offending his conservative base.
There's something else that gives the Virginia GOP hope — what's going on in Washington. In off-year races, Virginia voters have a tendency to vote for the party that lost the last national election, a trend that's held since 1977 and gives Cuccinelli better odds. If President Obama's approval rating deteriorates over the next six months, Virginia voters might vote to send a signal to the White House and leave social issues aside. The impassioned speech that helped propel Jackson to victory was largely about the federal government, not the state.
"You cannot look at this race without looking at the national atmosphere as well," said former Virginia Republican congressman Tom Davis. "This race will probably be 70 percent national and 30 percent state."
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.
* This post originally said that ticket-splitting was rare, because a governor and lieutenant governor from separate parties have only been elected twice in the past three decades. But there have been six split tickets since 1969.