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How Ken Cuccinelli blew his advantage in the Virginia governor’s race

Last month, we wrote that Ken Cuccinelli II’s campaign to become Virginia’s next governor needed to raise its game or face certain defeat. Has it done so? Unequivocally, no.

Cuccinelli’s strategists and consultants have doggedly followed a baffling strategy.

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.

No, Cuccinelli’s problems aren’t about luck. They’re about a candidate and a campaign team being unable to play this level.

Consider: Early on, Cuccinelli refused to resign as attorney general when he mounted his run for governor, as predecessors of both parties have done. We agree that this unique Virginia tradition is outdated. But given that several developing cases were fated to become front-page news during the election, his campaign advisers should have seized on the Virginia tradition as a blessing. They didn’t see it.

Cuccinelli, the likely easy winner in the already declared GOP gubernatorial primary, decided nonetheless to get the rules changed. He helped force a nominating convention that was stacked against rival Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. The perceived double-cross alienated key Republicans.

His advisers spent millions on television ads lacking a coherent theme. A “message” built around a positive, major idea might have rescued him from his advisers. Instead, a historically low GOP turnout now seems possible.

As McAuliffe’s summer ad campaign methodically wrecked Cuccinelli’s image, the Republican’s consultants failed to offer what professionals call an “alternative positive narrative.” Perhaps they were stockpiling cash to avoid being outspent in the fall by the better-financed Democrat, but the Cuccinelli team also failed to mount an innovative “free media” campaign, even though key gubernatorial-year voters are regular consumers of TV, print and Web site news.

It didn’t have to be this way. Cuccinelli led early polls due to positive job and personal ratings. He had a compelling story to tell that included single-handedly freeing an innocent African American long wrongfully incarcerated. Like McDonnell in 2009, Cuccinelli had impressive female supporters with the credibility to push back against attempts to stick him with an image as anti-woman.

Apparently, though, Cuccinelli’s consultants agreed with Virginia political observer Larry Sabato, who said the GOP nominee was a sure winner once Republicans launched their anti-McAuliffe campaign. We debunked such foolishness early on. The Cuccinelli campaign long promised an October surprise. Right.

The verdict: “Unable,” aided and abetted by “unlucky,” leads to “unelectable.”

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

 
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