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What does Terry McAuliffe’s victory mean?

TOM DAVIS

Represented Virginia’s 11th Congressional District in the House from 1995 to 2008 and, from 1999 to 2003, chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee

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For eight straight elections, Virginians have elected a governor from the party opposite the sitting president — because Virginians love to send a message to Washington. This year, even with President Obama’s disapproval rating in the state at 54 percent on Election Day, according to an NBC News exit poll, and Terry McAuliffe widely considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic nominees in decades, Virginians did not send that message. Virginia Republicans need to come to terms with why.

A few reminders are in order before the party forms a circular firing squad:

First, politics is a game of addition, not subtraction. Parties are coalitions, not private clubs with ideological litmus tests. Parties are formed to win elections to advance policy. Right now, the Republican Party comprises two distinct factions that are each unwilling to wholly support a candidate from the other; such disunity makes it difficult to win statewide.

Second, the state party must work to become more competitive in Northern Virginia and other urban areas, as well as in the knowledge enclaves around our universities, which are becoming dark blue. Ignoring these areas ignores the facts of demography.

Social issues are not trivial and need not be ignored, but they are not the issues that are producing majorities in Virginia. If we Republicans want to win, we need to be inclusive and tolerant of diverse opinions. People choose the Republican Party for many reasons: economic issues, tax issues, cultural and social issues, matters of ethnic and lifestyle identity, foreign policy and military issues. But the party cannot move the needle on any of these issues if it does not win elections.

The McAuliffe victory was in large part a referendum on Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli II. I know Ken to be a smart, tenacious campaigner and unlike the villain he was portrayed as in TV attack ads. However, the seeds of his repudiation were sown by a convention process that excluded all but the most fervent and ideologically committed.

In order to attract minorities, young people and others who feel alienated from the party, we need to open our nomination process by returning to primaries, hang out the welcome mat at party headquarters and recognize the demographic shifts that have altered the state’s political landscape. Failure to do so will mean more disappointing defeats.

This is not just about messaging. This is about who we are and what we can become.

COREY STEWART

Chairman (R), Prince William Board of County Supervisors

The knives are out for conservatives in Virginia. Many blame the tea party for leading the GOP too far to the right. Some pundits would have us believe that, to reclaim our dominance in Virginia, we must shift to the left. This line of thinking is simplistic — and wrong.

Conservatives can and do win in Virginia, including in Northern Virginia. My county, Prince William, is a reliable bellwether for statewide races, and nearly every successful statewide candidate over the past 20 years has won here. Among Democrats, Barack Obama won 57 percent of the vote in both 2008 and 2012, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine both won the county and now Terry McAuliffe has won it handily.

Is the county a Democratic stronghold? Hardly. George W. Bush won it in 2000 and 2004. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) dominated here in 2009. In 2011, I won my third countywide election.

So, why do some Republicans win in Prince William and others lose? Not by abandoning conservative principles.

Rather, Republicans win the county by building relationships with minority voters, focusing on solutions, deemphasizing social and ideological issues and embracing business.

This is a formula that works in Prince William. It can work for all of Virginia. It was not Ken Cuccinelli II’s formula.

What was Cuccinelli’s focus? What solutions did he propose? If you find it hard to answer those questions, you are not alone. Instead of convincing voters that he would be a solutions-oriented governor in the mold of McDonnell, Cuccinelli found himself yoked to Republicans in Washington who, thanks in no small part to the government shutdown, were viewed as obstructionist and unreasonable.

Did Cuccinelli have a focus of his own? McAuliffe’s campaign encouraged voters, with great success, to say yes: abortion, birth control and homosexuality. Although many Virginians have conservative views on such social issues, they do not want their elected officials to focus on them. McDonnell, like myself, is pro-life. This stance did not harm either of us in Prince William. Why? Because most pro-life and pro-choice voters have one thing in common: They will support candidates with differing views on social issues, provided that the candidates do not dwell on them.

During his years in office, Cuccinelli defined himself, first and foremost, as a social conservative. Although Cuccinelli made a late attempt to deemphasize social issues, it was too late, and McAuliffe, with his overwhelming financial advantage, hammered the point home.

Virginians want solutions. Let’s take a cue from President Dwight Eisenhower, who wrote: “The men that can do things are going to be sought out just as surely as the sun rises in the morning. Fake reputations, habits of glib and clever speech, and glittering surface performance are going to be discovered.” If we become the party of solutions — of getting things done — Virginians will seek us out and count us deserving of their vote.

MARK PLOTKIN

Political analyst

Hustler. Huckster. Wheeler-dealer. Most voters see Terry McAuliffe as a fast-talking manipulator with a penchant for smiling all the way to the bank.

Four years ago, McAuliffe ran in the Democratic primary for governor and finished a distant second. His campaign was viewed as an exercise in personal ambition devoid of substance. His residence in the state was questioned. Former governor Doug Wilder told me he “didn’t know Terry lived in Virginia.”

Now, four years later, he is governor-elect of Virginia. How did this happen?

Credit goes to McAuliffe, who was resilient, shrewd and very lucky.

The most important thing McAuliffe did was not indulge in self-pity after his crushing 2009 defeat. After that loss, he simply dusted himself off and began to run again.

First, he preempted the Democratic field. To win, he needed to be the only candidate, and he wasted no time before moving to make that happen. He began meeting with party leaders to lock up their support in the 2013 race, boxing out the two possible opponents with the greatest potential to force him into a ugly primary — former House of Delegates minority leader Ward Armstrong and former congressman Tom Perriello. Once the field was cleared, McAuliffe was free to concentrate on the main prize.

Then Republicans gave him a gift: They decided to pick their nominee by convention. Conventions are fun for the party faithful, but because they attract only the most committed party members, they provide a clear advantage to the candidates who are the most doctrinaire and ideological. The GOP convention in Richmond was true to form. Suffice it to say that Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling would have made a much better case to the state’s moderates. Bolling would have been a more electable nominee than Ken Cuccinelli II.

Other factors aided McAuliffe. Foremost was the government shutdown, for which Republicans took the blame. No doubt many voters in Northern Virginia, Norfolk and Hampton Roads went to the polls eager to let Republicans know how they felt about that. The shutdown was an unexpected favor for McAuliffe, and he adroitly parlayed it to his advantage.

Finally, there was the ongoing criminal investigation of Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s acceptance of gifts and money from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The case hung over Cuccinelli’s campaign because he, too, had dealings with Williams.

Terry McAuliffe was a seriously flawed candidate. But he still won — narrowly. In this off off-year election, any Republican but Cuccinelli would have won.

In viewing the total campaign, I’m reminded of the words of fabled Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” That could be McAuliffe’s credo. Throw in $35 million and it worked.

PAUL GOLDMAN AND NORMAN LEAHY

Respectively, a former Democratic Party of Virginia chairman and the editor of the conservative Web site Bearing Drift

Despite the public polls predicting a comfortable Terry McAuliffe win, in the end the governor-elect eked out a 2.5-percentage-point victory. The Cuccinelli campaign is right when it says faulty polls hurt its candidate. But Cuccinelli’s team is trying to deflect attention away from its dumb strategy by playing the victim card, blaming the press, Sen. Ted Cruz, Robert Sarvis and a host of others.

Yes, Ken Cuccinelli II was outspent by a huge margin. But without Cuccinelli’s stubborn refusal to repay $18,000 of in-kind contributions from Jonnie R. Williams Sr. — the donor at the heart of the McDonnell “giftgate” investigation – McAuliffe’s money probably would not have prevented a GOP victory. By the time Cuccinelli reversed course on the Williams gifts, it was too late. The attack ads had done their damage.

So why was the final result so close? Two late, unforced errors by the otherwise sure-footed McAuliffe campaign.

A premature victory lap: McAuliffe poked conservative voters in the eye during the closing days by campaigning with Hillary Clinton, then Bill Clinton and finally the president. The campaign seemed to be taking a Democratic National Committee victory lap with its former chairman. This sort of thing has always been a no-no in a Virginia gubernatorial race.

Inviting an Obamacare backlash: The health-care reform law has become a proxy for growing race and class divisions in America, which are being fueled by a stubbornly persistent squeeze on a growing number of middle-class families. This vocal anger has been vented outside the Republican Party since H. Ross Perot’s revolt in 1992. Now, with the rise of the tea party, much of it operates inside the GOP.

These voters see Obamacare mostly as a mechanism for shifting money from their pockets to someone else’s. By bringing in the president on the last weekend of the campaign, McAuliffe poked a stick at this bear, too. He is lucky the Cuccinelli team didn’t understand the politics of Obamacare where the rubber really meets the road.

 
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