It is amusing to see the right wing try to spin the loss by their tea party darling Ken Cuccinelli ll in the Virginia governor’s race. Unfortunately, the loser is not cooperating with the finger-pointing:

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), second from left, had interesting things to say about immigration reform.<br />(Bill O'Leary/Washington Post) Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), second from left, had interesting things to say about immigration reform.
(Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Chris LaCivita, Ken Cuccinelli’s chief political strategist during the recently ended gubernatorial campaign, says the federal-government shutdown crippled the Virginia Republican’s campaign more than any other factor. “It moved the disaster of Obamacare away from our narrative,” he says, in an interview with National Review Online. “It sucked the oxygen out of the room. Instead of talking about Obamacare, we were talking about the shutdown.”

In mid-October, LaCivita says, the campaign was startled by how the shutdown affected their momentum. Their internal poll numbers dipped and several of the Virginia attorney general’s donors, especially conservative groups aligned with Cuccinelli, “suddenly became gun-shy.”

“It was this perfect storm of events that hurt us,” LaCivita says. “We had been preparing to use the October 1 start of Obamacare as the center of our strategy, and then it was just taken off the table. Once the shutdown ended, we worked hard to maximize what we could.”

Oops. Oh well, what does he know — he was just running the campaign, right?

Well, maybe next time the Virginia GOP will run a primary-tested gubernatorial candidate who doesn’t scare off a chunk of the electorate and doesn’t have to battle for air time with a national right-wing escapade. Hey, that might work.

There will be endless arguments over who did the most damage, but it might behoove the Republicans to move on. They know what drove their poll numbers into the basement and angered the country: the shutdown. They know what is driving Democrats to distraction and the president’s poll numbers into George W. Bush territory: Obamacare. They no doubt have figured out that an unflinching focus on the harm being done by Obamacare inures to their benefit and puts the Dems on defense for as long as the problems persist.

Being in the minority in the Senate and out of the White House, the GOP naturally has a problem with clarity and priorities. Without the bully pulpit and the singular focus an executive can bring, they are unsurprisingly all over the map. There is Obamacare opposition. There is the dangerous Iran interim deal to push back against. There are good ideas from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) swirling around on tax reform, education reform and more. There are health-care plans out and about offered as a substitute for Obamacare. And yes, there is immigration reform.

The Republicans can play a little defense — attacking both the Obamacare fiasco and the “historic mistake,” as the Israeli prime minister described a possible interim deal — and some offense. But on offense, fewer items maybe better. Leave the budget (which will be small ball anyway) to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and turn, I would suggest, to two pro-jobs measures: energy development and immigration reform. The rest is clutter for now.

Energy development should be an easy sell within the GOP House and Senate and may attract some increasingly nervous red state Democratic senators. It would be productive to focus on that, not only because it is overwhelmingly popular and good policy, but because it is achievable. As for immigration reform, it seems unlikely that anything approaching a comprehensive deal could get done, but maybe Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a constructive Republican conservative like Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C..) could sit down to map out two or three items that could make up their own mini-bargain. If not, there is plenty else to do before the end of the year. The House can come back to immigration reform early next year.

If the government shutdown showed us anything, it is that small deals are better than big blow-ups. And if the Obamacare debacle teaches Republicans nothing else, it should at least alert them to the opportunity to start talking to and about middle- and lower-class Americans who are being hurt by the Obama administration. Put those two together, and they might have a winning message for 2014.