The Virginia Republican Party was already taking a risk, dumping a gubernatorial primary election in favor of a convention, in order to assure the ideologically emphatic Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II the nomination. Then on Saturday, a small turnout of party die-hards picked a nominee for lieutenant governor who is nothing short of outrageous.
African American lawyer-turned preacher E.W. Jackson has called gays “perverted” and “very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally.” He has said the president has “Muslim sensibilities.” He has compared Planned Parenthood to the KKK. He previously got less than 5 percent of the vote in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate in 2012. He is by any definition an extremist, someone who could not muster even minimal support from GOP primary voters.
And this is the No.2 man on the ticket, with whom Cuccinelli is now campaigning on a 10-city tour of the state. You can be sure that his opponent will be taking footage to be used in ads linking Cuccinelli with Jackson’s language and view.
Cuccinelli has already told The Post, “I am just not going to defend my running mates’ statements at every turn. They’ve got to explain those themselves. Part of this process is just letting Virginia voters get comfortable with us, on an individual basis, personally.” But politics is never that simple.
Cuccinelli is a staunch social conservative who was already going to have an uphill climb with moderate voters. But he has never dabbled in the sort of egregious language Jackson has used. He’s now going to have to walk a thin line, signaling to his supporters that his own views haven’t changed but also reassuring voters he’s not a gay-hater or conspiracy monger. You can be sure that Terry McAuliffe’s campaign will try to obliterate such distinctions.
The Cuccinelli campaign is not unaware of its challenges. A senior campaign official who was authorized only to speak on background told me, “Virginians have always treated the ticket individually.” He added, “Ken Cuccinelli is going to be focused on the economy and jobs. Clearly, that is the number one issue.”
The danger is that average Northern Virginian voter will look at this pair, conclude Cuccinelli shares Jackson’s views and vote against them both. If Cuccinelli has any hope of keeping his losses down in Northern Virginia, he’ll need to reject Jackson’s views (e.g. No I don’t believe gays are perverts. . .) and quit campaigning with him as soon as feasible.
Some Republicans in the state are already nervous. One state GOP insider e-mailed me, almost despondent. “This Jackson nomination illustrates something that a lot of commentators don’t appreciate — this assumption on the part of some on the hard right that blacks will automatically respond to a black Republican, even one whose views have no intrinsic appeal to blacks.” He continued, “But what a sad, corrosive day for the party, from the specter of 8000 people choosing a statewide candidate, to Cuccinelli not having the basic sense to block it. And what a hideous position it puts so many of us in.”
It is not however clear that Cuccinelli could have blocked Jackson, who brought his own grassroots supporters to the convention. However, it was Cuccinelli backers who insisted on a convention in the first place to give Cuccinelli a lock on the conservative base’s nod. That decision has now come back to bite him in the form of Jackson.
Jackson’s nomination may hurt Cuccinelli in a number of ways. It will heighten turnout among the Democratic base (previously unenthusiastic about the race). It will turn attention back to social issues, not where Cuccinelli will win over moderate voters. And it will increase the perception that Cuccinelli is himself ideologically extreme, a concern for the campaign even before the Jackson nomination.
To overcome these, Cuccinelli will need to advance a meaty agenda and show a discipline that he’s not yet demonstrated. The race will be competitive, but the Dems just caught a lucky break.