The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s non-endorsement — and what it means

Here's the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board writing on the Virginia governor's race:

The major-party candidates have earned the citizenry’s derision. The third-party alternative has run a more exemplary race yet does not qualify as a suitable option. We cannot in good conscience endorse a candidate for governor. This does not gladden us. Circumstance has brought us to this pass. This marks, we believe, the first time in modern Virginia that The Times-Dispatch has not endorsed a gubernatorial nominee.

Ouch.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, shakes hands with Republican candidate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli at the end of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in McLean, Va. (AP Photo/The Washington Post, Linda Davidson, Pool)

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Democrat Terry McAuliffe, left, shakes hands with Republican candidate Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli at the end of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce debate Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, in McLean, Va. (AP Photo/The Washington Post, Linda Davidson, Pool)

Anytime there's a noteworthy endorsement or, in this case, non-endorsement, we like to roll out the Fix Endorsement Hierarchy -- our look at which endorsements matter, which don't and how they all fit together.

On its face, the RTD op-ed is a clear example of a non-endorsement endorsement. (For a full list of every category in the Fix Endorsement Hierarchy, scroll to the bottom of this page.) You could also call this the you-say-it-best-when-you-say-nothing-at-all endorsement because in not endorsing in the race, the RTD is making its views on the contest quite clear.

Here's why: The Times-Dispatch editorial board is reliably conservative. In 2009, they endorsed then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R). The RTD endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. The paper endorsed John McCain in the 2008 presidential race. In short, its editorial board reliably backs GOP candidates. Which means its non-endorsement is rightly read as a negative commentary on the candidacy of state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Just in case you missed that memo, the RTD drives the point home with a slashing rhetorical assault on Cuccinelli's work to change the nomination process from a primary to a convention, which virtually ensured that the most conservative candidate (him) would win the Republican nomination. "The expression of raw power would have delighted sachems of Tammany Hall," wrote the editorial board. "Virginia does not welcome an in-your-face governor." (You can bet that last line will wind up in an ad for Democrat Terry McAuliffe sometime very soon.)

In short, Cuccinelli lost by not winning. The seeming neutrality of the RTD's decision to stay out of the race isn't neutral at all. It takes an expected validator for Cuccinelli off the table.

Is this make or break for Cuccinelli? Absolutely not. As we have long noted when it comes to endorsements, most don't matter.  This one may matter more than most, however,  because it plays into the idea -- long forwarded by McAuliffe and his allies -- that even many loyal Republicans can't support Cuccinelli.

The Fix Endorsement Hierarchy (ranked in order of influence)

* The Symbolic Endorsement: Former Florida governor Jeb Bush endorsing Mitt Romney for president.

* The National Endorsement: Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty for Romney.

* The In-State Statewide Endorsement: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist throwing his support to Sen. John McCain just before the Sunshine State presidential primary in 2008.

* The Celebrity Endorsement: Chuck Norris for Huckabee in 2008; Oprah for Obama.

* The Newspaper Endorsement: The Washington Post endorsing state Sen. Creigh Deeds in the 2009 Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary.

* Out-of-State Statewide Endorsement: South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint endorsing former Florida state House speaker Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate primary.

* The What Goes Around Comes Around Endorsement: Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsing Rubio.

* The Obligatory Endorsement: George W. Bush endorsing McCain’s presidential bid in 2008.

* The “Me for Me” Endorsement: Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) endorsing Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in his 2010 Senate campaign.

* The Non-Endorsement Endorsement: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) passing on an endorsement of Sen. David Vitter (R) in his 2010 reelection bid.

* The Backfire Endorsement: Former vice president Al Gore endorsing former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race.

* The Pariah Endorsement: Jailed former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham backing Newt Gingrich.

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