Tichi Pinkney-Eppes, a member of the Richmond school board, looks straight into the camera in a TV ad for Republican Ken Cuccinelli II — and does her best to soften his image.
“Speaking as a mother and a Democrat, there are some things you need to know about Ken Cuccinelli,” Eppes says about the attorney general, whose conservative stances on many issues have left him deeply unpopular among women in the race for Virginia governor this year. It’s “ridiculous,” she adds, to suggest that Cuccinelli “has some agenda against women.”
Across the dial, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a popular politician with a long career in public service, attests to the camera in an ad for Democrat Terry McAuliffe that the businessman has the gravitas and pragmatism to continue the “Virginia way” of good governance and compromise. McAuliffe's four-second part involves nothing more than standing silently by and nodding vigorously as Warner explains something.
Every campaign utilizes surrogates to help tell a candidate’s story. But McAuliffe and Cuccinelli are deploying them in strikingly different ways in their race for governor, illustrating their own strengths and weaknesses in the process. McAuliffe has asked veteran elected officials to lend him their authority and experience, while Cuccinelli is relying heavily on female voices to cast his hard-edged image in a softer light.
“Not all surrogates are created equal,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican operative whose campaign experience includes Mitt Romney’s 2012 White House bid. “Some of them aren’t as well known or as popular . . . but will help you reinforce some greater narrative about the candidate personally. Or you can take a lot of other elected officials, with the idea being that you’re plugging into their political operation and their political profile.”
McAuliffe is fortunate to have popular officials at state and national levels, including Warner, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) and Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to make the case that he is fit for office.
The Clintons hosted a fundraiser for McAuliffe last week at their Washington home, and the former president is expected to campaign for McAuliffe before Election Day. Kaine has done Spanish-language radio ads.
What Kaine, Warner and the Clintons have in common, said Democratic campaign consultant J.B. Poersch, is that “they all get credit from voters for reaching across the aisle, for being less partisan than you see either in governors’ chairs or in Washington. They have credibility that way.”
McAuliffe needs such surrogates — or “validators,” in campaign parlance — in part because he has no governing record of his own, so Virginians are less likely to take his word for it that he’s ready to do the job.
Cuccinelli does not have that problem. He has four years of service as attorney general, more than seven years in the state Senate and a long trail of votes and speeches that tell his story. Even Democrats acknowledge that Cuccinelli speaks fluently about a wide range of policy issues, making it less important for others to do it for him.
But Cuccinelli does have a likability problem. According to a September Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll, he is losing to McAuliffe among self-described moderate voters by 24 points. He’s also trailing among women by 24 points.
“Cuccinelli's approach is different by necessity, I think,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “He needs surrogates who soften him, who take that edge off the notion that he is this insensitive, hard-line conservative.”
In addition to the Eppes spot, the Republican’s campaign recently featured an ad with Thomas Haynesworth, whom Cuccinelli fought to free after he spent 27 years in jail for rapes he did not commit. Another commercial showed the widow of a slain Fairfax County police officer, who said she’d “never forget” that Cuccinelli came to the hospital where her husband battled for his life.
Cuccinelli also aired a spot anchored by Lisa Caruso, the Dinwiddie County commonwealth’s attorney, who says Cuccinelli “looks out for those who cannot help themselves.” And Cuccinelli’s very first campaign ad showcased his wife, Teiro, saying that her husband “has spent his life standing up for the vulnerable and those in need.”
Cuccinelli’s campaign has been well stocked with personal character witnesses, but less so with political celebrities — in part because the likely stand-ins either bring baggage or are unsympathetic to Cuccinelli’s candidacy.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is facing a federal investigation into gifts and loans he and his family accepted from the dietary supplement firm Star Scientific and its chief executive. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) has been feuding with Cuccinelli since Cuccinelli announced his plans to run for governor.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), one of the key architects of the GOP plan to defund the Affordable Care Act, appeared Saturday at a Family Foundation Dinner in Richmond — but the appearance came at a price for Cuccinelli. Cruz did not share a stage with the gubernatorial candidate — though the two camps had initially discussed holding a separate event together — and Cuccinelli was asked repeatedly whether he agreed or disagreed with Cruz’s tactics.
Cuccinelli has also enlisted figures specifically aimed at firing up the base, including conservative radio host Mark Levin. Levin has a history of controversial comments that Democrats revived when he appeared with Cuccinelli in Sterling last month.
Even the softening ad with Eppes, the Richmond school board member, was not without complications. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, she filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection Oct. 2, though her message in the Cuccinelli ad had nothing to do with her personal finances. And while the Clintons bring star power and cashto McAuliffe’s campaign, they can also serve to remind voters of some of McAuliffe’s past brushes with scandal.