The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats want to paint GOP governors as Ken Cuccinelli. That’s hard to do.

Dara Fox holds a Cuccinelli poster along a roadside prior to the campaign rally in Woodbridge. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

To Democrats, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s loss was a welcome omen, a prelude to a wave of voter recrimination that will send Republican governors elected during the tea party sweep of 2010 to an early retirement.

“What you’re seeing there is a small window, or a harbinger for what lies ahead for Republican governors in 2014,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview.

Democrats will aim to retire several governors first elected in the 2010 Republican wave in states like Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Early indications hint they will use the same tactics that helped defeat Cuccinelli — drive a wedge between Republicans and moderates, especially women, by pointing to controversial social issues.

“They all deserted the middle class job-creating priorities for a social agenda that doesn’t square with 75 percent of Americans,” Shumlin said of his Republican colleagues.

Both sides broadly agree that five states with first-term Republican incumbents — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin — are going to account for the bulk of the spending on governor’s races in 2014.

But Democratic hopes of generating a sort of reverse wave by painting  Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) or Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) with the same brush Democrats used on Cuccinelli won’t be easy. Here’s why:

— Cuccinelli lived on social issues. Virginia’s attorney general reminded us of Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman who built a career by taking a hard line on immigration. When we sat down with Tancredo this year, he talked about education reform and other issues, but he perked up and got animated when the conversation steered toward immigration. He just can’t help himself.

The same was true of Cuccinelli. Four years after another conservative, Bob McDonnell, won election by virtually ignoring social issues and focusing on jobs and the economy, Cuccinelli kept wading into controversial social issues, from a state ban on sodomy to setting a higher bar for divorces. By appealing to base conservatives, Cuccinelli did everything he could, it seemed, to drive women voters to rival Terry McAuliffe.

Snyder and Kasich aren’t as easily pilloried as creatures of the socially conservative right. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker aren’t, either. Democrats will make the case that Kasich, Walker, Scott and Corbett all signed legislation mandating ultrasounds before abortions, among other things. But if the five incumbents learned anything from this year, it’s that they should avoid giving Democrats the chance to drive the debate into the social issue mine field.

Democrats say the Obama campaign proved in 2012 that they have the upper hand on the economy, too. Obama’s campaign made the same case, that Mitt Romney would cut corporate taxes at the expense of the middle class, in the same media markets — all five Republican incumbents run states Obama won last year — that Democrats made against Cuccinelli, and that they can make again next year.

— The incumbents have records. The record Cuccinelli had to run on was his tenure as attorney general. Snyder’s reelection campaign will tout the 200,000 jobs Michigan has added since he came to office. Walker gets to brag that the unemployment rate has dropped a full percentage point over his four years, and that he froze tuition in the University of Wisconsin system. Scott can point to 365,000 jobs created in the past four years. A June Quinnipiac University poll shows big margins of Ohio voters think the state’s economy is getting better, which bodes well for Kasich.

The recession taught us that elected officials don’t really have that much sway over the global economy. Governors deserve about as much credit for job growth early in their terms as President Obama deserves blame for a recession that didn’t reach its nadir until the middle of his first year in office, which is to say, not much. But try telling that to voters; in a world of 30-second campaign ads, facts — no matter how misleading — are stubborn things.

That works especially well in Scott’s favor. Charlie Crist, his likely Democratic opponent, couldn’t have done anything about the global economic crisis that happened during his tenure.  But Scott will point to the job losses that happened on Crist’s watch nonetheless; it’s a powerful contrast, even if it’s not exactly backed up by causation.

(A not-insignificant side note: Records are double-edged swords. Democrats will use Walker’s 2010 promise to create 250,000 new jobs in his first term, a mark he hasn’t reached. And Corbett has a slew of verbal gaffes, YouTube moments seemingly tailor-made for 30-second advertisements.)

— The DGA’s Kobayashi Maru. Incumbents raise much more money than challengers. The Democratic Governors Association has about half the cash that the Republican Governors Association does. That means Democrats have to pick their spots carefully. They won’t be able to bolster every first-time statewide candidate with tens of millions of dollars, so they’ll have to choose between, say, spending a little bit on a lot of races and a lot on a few where they can move the needle.

Here’s the flip side: Captain Kirk beat the Kobayashi Maru simulation. And the DGA likes to point out that they’ve won eight of nine races in which the two sides have engaged in the last three years — Kentucky and West Virginia in 2011; New Hampshire, Montana, Missouri, Washington and West Virginia in 2012; and Virginia in 2013. Republicans won the North Carolina governor’s mansion in 2012, even as both sides played.

Waves in gubernatorial elections are rare. A Republican wave developed in 2010; Democrats need some serious luck if another wave is to break their way in 2014.