The other campaign is about voters in Virginia.
In both cases, the candidates are Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican, and former national Democratic party chairman Terry McAuliffe.
“There are parallel campaigns, the one fought in the national eye versus the one happening on the ground,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist who supports McAuliffe and worked for him four years ago. “You’re fighting a two-front battle.”
Virginia governor’s races have taken on national import for many years, because only the Old Dominion and New Jersey hold statewide elections the year after a presidential vote. But that national spotlight has grown far more intense as Virginia has evolved into a politically competitive state.
The national version of the campaigns for and against — but mainly against — Cuccinelli and McAuliffe already includes a “Keep Ken Out” Web site from Planned Parenthood’s political arms and the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List’s “Tell Terry” drive on the Internet and in radio ads — part of a $1.5 million commitment the group has made to the GOP candidate.
America Rising, a new Republican-friendly political action committee devoted to opposition research and headed by former Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades, has started posting video clips of McAuliffe’s most embarrassing moments. And American Bridge, the Democratic-aligned group that inspired the creation of America Rising, has launched two anti-Cuccinelli sites, GiftsforKen.com and Kenontheissues.com.
For the national parties, the Virginia race is a way to define themselves ahead of the next election cycle. “The Republicans have to prove they remain a viable party even though they’re on the defensive on issue after issue,” said Craig Shirley, a Republican strategist and biographer who earlier this year helped Cuccinelli publicize his new book, “The Last Line of Defense.” “And the Democrats want to show the national trend is continuing and they’ve broken with Virginia’s history of going against the party that won the White House.”
This year, both gubernatorial campaigns shifted into hyperdrive more than eight months ahead of the election, feeding the media beast an almost hourly diet of news releases, tweets and appearances.
Both sides aired their first ads in the first days of May, which struck some campaign professionals as a little nutty.
Dave Rexrode, Cuccinelli’s campaign manager, agreed that “most voters in Virginia are a little burned out and are not as focused on the governor’s race as they will be come September.”
But he said there are ways to reach unengaged voters. As a result, national outlets look more appealing. “We are willing to talk about Ken and his message with all media outlets,” Rexrode said. “National cable shows and magazines do reach Virginia voters.” Cuccinelli recently spent time with reporters from the conservative magazines National Review and Newsmax and has appeared occasionally on Fox News Channel.
Both candidates were already familiar faces on national TV before the campaign: Cuccinelli became a tea party favorite by leading the legal challenge to President Obama’s health-care initiative, and McAuliffe was prominent as a fundraiser for President Bill Clinton and Democratic party chairman.
But a Washington Post poll last week found that 70 percent of Virginians know little or nothing about McAuliffe and that 52 percent said the same about Cuccinelli. So does it make sense for the campaigns to spend this spring spraying nasty stories about their opponent?
The sniping and countersniping are meant mainly to generate bad newspaper headlines about the other guy — not for readers of those papers, but “because we’re going to use those headlines in TV spots down the road,” said GOP strategist Chris LaCivita, who is advising the Cuccinelli campaign.
Those ads will aim to cement in voters’ minds dueling caricatures: McAuliffe seeks to paint Cuccinelli as an extreme social conservative whose heartfelt stands against abortion, same-sex marriage and Obamacare make him a threat to women. Cuccinelli, in contrast, is working to portray McAuliffe as a failed businessman who is beholden to the monied interests he has schmoozed for decades as a Democratic fundraiser.
But beneath those cartoon images, the issues associated with the candidates are very different on the two stages: National coverage often focuses on sensational stories that have appeal beyond Virginia, such as Cuccinelli losing his challenge of a ruling that had struck down the state’s anti-sodomy law, or a rehash of a 2007 story about McAuliffe leaving his wife, who was about to give birth, at the hospital so he could attend a party for a Washington Post columnist. (McAuliffe made it to his wife’s side in time for the birth of their daughter.)
Inside Virginia, news coverage tends to be more parochial, centered on Cuccinelli’s view on transportation funding or McAuliffe’s visits to small towns to push economic proposals. Governorships are often won on such local and pocketbook issues, and focusing on national cartoon images is a mistake, strategists said.
“People inside the Beltway see ‘crazy Ken,’ ” Elleithee said. “They see Jon Stewart making fun of him, and my side cannot fall into that trap.”
Similarly, Republicans who know McAuliffe only as “The Macker,” the ebullient back-slapper who once showed up on TV in a Hawaiian shirt waving a bottle of Bacardi Gold, run the danger of ignoring his appearances at 18 of Virginia’s 23 community colleges — visits that have landed him on the front pages of many small-town papers.
It’s a misreading of voters’ interest and tolerance levels for campaigns to wage an early, national-level assault, said Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders, a longtime Virginia Democratic strategist. “The national media wants this thing to start so they can fill their time,” he said. “But where I live, the Roanoke paper hasn’t done two stories in the last 30 days on this campaign.”
That may sound like hyperbole, but although the Roanoke Times has published several wire stories about the latest allegations of questionable behavior, the newspaper has published only four stories by its own reporters on the governor’s race in the past six weeks.
“The average person is not engaged in this election right now,” said Michael Stowe, the paper’s managing editor. “I don’t know how many could even tell you who the candidates are.” Stowe has a first draft of an election plan on his desk and expects to meet next month with his counterpart at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk — the two papers share a common owner — to map out campaign coverage.
The national version of the governor’s race is driven not only by media interest, but also by the candidates’ need to raise money. “National attention opens a whole different level of money,” Shirley said. “The high-wire act is to use the national platform to raise money but also keep focused on state issues.”
Both candidates argue that their opponent is investing too much energy into raising money in faraway places. But McAuliffe campaign manager Robby Mook says, “Every major statewide campaign raises money across the country.” He cites Cuccinelli’s book tour, which took him to the presidential primary meccas of Iowa and New Hampshire, as evidence that “Cuccinelli is the standard-bearer for the national tea party.”
Cuccinelli’s book, Shirley insists, was born during the battle over Obama’s health-care reform initiative and “was not meant as a campaign tool.”
Beyond media and money, there’s another factor in the campaigns’ decisions to go early and national, Shirley said: The professionals hired to run these campaigns are eager to make themselves desirable to candidates in the next two rounds of elections.
“Consultants on this campaign view this as an audition for 2014 and 2016,” Shirley said. “Too many consultants have forgotten that this is supposed to be about the voters.”