Even the best campaigns can lose. But an inept campaign guarantees a loss for an underdog, and Cuccinelli (R) has been the underdog since July. The attorney general’s defenders will undoubtedly refute our analysis, claiming instead that bad luck and strong headwinds have hobbled the GOP effort in Virginia. In our view, his problems went much deeper.
Simply put, Cuccinelli’s advisers never displayed an ability to win. They badly underestimated the seasoned team of his opponent, Terry McAuliffe (D), which was aided by nearly twice as much campaign cash.
We concede that Cuccinelli has likely suffered worse luck than any gubernatorial candidate in Virginia history. The unprecedented election-year investigation into Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s acceptance of gifts from donor Jonnie R. Williams Sr. vaporized the Republican Party’s best asset: a successful and popular incumbent. The probe also made Williams’s $18,000 worth of in-kind contributions to Cuccinelli — all of it legal, remember — politically radioactive.
But the real damage from “giftgate” had nothing to do with luck. It resulted from Cuccinelli’s inexplicable refusal to repay the $18,000, even after McDonnell had reimbursed Williams. This gave McAuliffe a political gift: an issue to use in a late-summer television ad barrage to undercut Cuccinelli’s previously “clean” image. When Cuccinelli’s campaign finally realized its huge, unforced error, it reversed course and Cuccinelli donated the value of the gifts to charity. But the damage was done.
Cuccinelli’s defenders also bemoan the bad timing of the federal shutdown and debt default, which soured voters on Republicans generally. It’s true that was a tough break. But by then, his campaign was already lagging in the polls.
Moreover, Cuccinelli had been angling to harness tea party enthusiasm since his first-in-the-nation legal challenge to Obamacare in 2010. He had to know — or should have known — the risks of associating himself with the bloc’s often-rigid views. This month, he and shutdown leader Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the tea party’s hero of the moment, were the featured speakers at the conservative Family Foundation’s annual gala in Richmond. Polling suggests that interest in the race among conservative voters is lagging, but Cuccinelli couldn’t use Cruz to help turn out his base — not with tens of thousands of Northern Virginians seeing themselves as direct victims of the Texan’s actions.
Bad luck also didn’t create a pattern of pitting gubernatorial candidate Cuccinelli against Attorney General Cuccinelli on issues such as McDonnell’s transportation plan, unpopular tolls in the Tidewater region and landowner rights in Southwest Virginia. Candidate Cuccinelli has repeatedly made news by opposing policies that Attorney General Cuccinelli’s office has been defending on legal grounds. This has understandably confused voters.