Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe’s unexpectedly slim victory in Virginia set off an explosion of recriminations among Republicans on Wednesday, and rather than settling the battle between the GOP’s tea party and business factions, the election appears to have deepened the internal divide.
If lessons emerged from Tuesday’s vote, they were almost instantly lost in the volley of finger-pointing that began even before the polls closed. Republican Ken Cuccinelli II’s narrow loss, despite what opinion surveys had consistently called a comfortable lead for McAuliffe, left the candidate’s camp accusing national party organizations of abandoning their man in the closest major race in the nation this year.
Party officials said it was Cuccinelli who had failed to raise money from mainstream Republican sources skeptical of his hard-line rhetoric and uncompromising conservatism.
“The lesson is that a party divided is going to lose,” said Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur who served as Cuccinelli’s finance chairman. “The Democrats weren’t happy with their candidate, but they were united. Ken Cuccinelli had to deal with Melrose Place.”
Amid the internal sniping, Tuesday’s vote — which left McAuliffe the victor by less than 2.5 percentage points — revealed potentially important lessons about Virginia’s evolving politics for both parties.
McAuliffe’s victory masked the fact that although Democrats in Virginia can reliably depend on nonwhite and unmarried voters, they seem to lose among whites and married people almost without regard to their candidates’ ideology or personality. Democrats have lost the white vote by 20 or more percentage points in the last four Virginia votes for governor or president, according to survey data.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said his party has figured out “how to win Virginia. But we also need to broaden our reach to all those red parts of the state you see on the map. The population centers are more favorable to Democrats, but I do think there’s growing alienation in the nonurban parts of the state that we have to address to be a broader and more inclusive party.”
He said the key to winning in rural Virginia is to show residents that Democrats “can deliver for you. There are lot of counties in Virginia that are very distressed. Can we bring investment to that community? Can we overcome some of the suspicious and cultural conservatism that right now holds sway in a large part of rural Virginia?”
“The ghost of conservative Virginia past loomed over this race,” said Quentin Kidd, a government professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “McAuliffe, unlike [former governors and current U.S. Senators] Tim Kaine or Mark Warner, is a left progressive Democrat, and Democrats still have to nominate business-friendly, moderate candidates like Kaine or Warner to win.”
Kidd said the closeness of Tuesday’s vote may make it less likely that either party will look beyond its internal battles to find a way to broaden its appeal to moderates and independents.
“A resounding defeat would have allowed the business wing of the Republican Party to make the case against the social conservative wing that we need to moderate our appeal,” Kidd said. “But with this result, the tea party wing gets the energy to say, ‘Well, we didn’t do as badly as you said we would.’ ”
Tea party activists indeed made that case, complaining that this was only the latest example of national GOP leaders betraying the grass roots.
“What this should demonstrate to everybody is that when you have a candidate that motivates the grass roots and you couple that with the financial resources that are required to run an effective campaign, we can be very successful,” said Jamie Radtke, a co-founder of the Virginia Tea Party Federation. “Hopefully, they’ve seen we can win with a conservative candidate. That’s been their fear. But by getting so close with no money, we’ve shown it’s possible.”
Cuccinelli’s chief strategist, Chris LaCivita, said the Republican National Committee and other party groups had doomed the campaign by pulling back on their support when polls in early October showed the candidate losing badly.
“We were on our own,” La Civita said Tuesday night after results came in.
But RNC spokesman Kirsten Kukowski countered that “our efforts, along with the widespread disappointment in Obamacare, helped keep this race close.”
The RNC contributed about $3 million to Cuccinelli, only one-third as much as it had to Robert F. McDonnell’s successful campaign four years ago. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which gave $1 million to McDonnell, gave Cuccinelli nothing.
Even though Virginia’s population continues to grow more ethnically mixed, urban and transient, the state remains so evenly divided politically that the people who run campaigns often conclude that the path to victory lies in rallying their party’s core voters rather than reaching out to moderates.
The RNC warned after the 2012 election that Republicans could win only if they found a way to “in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming” to nonwhites, immigrants and young voters. “If we are not,” an RNC report said, “we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.”
Tuesday’s exit polls suggest that Republicans have made little or no headway in appealing to nonwhites or single voters.
Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who lost the gubernatorial nomination to Cuccinelli and refused to endorse him, said he was “ deeply disappointed” by his party’s losses. “There are clear lessons in these losses for the Republican Party,” he said, adding that the GOP must “determine what we must do to reconnect with a more diverse voter base whose support is critical to political success in Virginia.”
Some Republicans who steered clear of Cuccinelli during the campaign said privately that they had hoped for a clear loss to purge the party of its tea party flank and restore power to its more business-oriented, socially moderate core.
Cuccinelli grew incensed by what he perceived as disloyalty as he found himself unable to pay for TV ads to counter the Democrats’ relentless negative ad campaign, according to two Republican insiders who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal campaign conversations. That anger flowed into election night, when Cuccinelli refused to make the traditional congratulatory phone call to McAuliffe.
Intraparty divisions plagued the Cuccinelli campaign from its inception, with major donors, business groups and moderate GOP politicians complaining that the state attorney general was too extreme to win. Some even argued that the party might be better off losing to McAuliffe to show once and for all that Republicans needed a more moderate appeal than tea party activists would offer.
The narrow margin in a race in which McAuliffe overwhelmingly outspent Cuccinelli left Republicans wondering what might have been. According to two Virginia Republicans familiar with the Cuccinelli campaign’s operations, the Republican Governors Association, which spent about $8 million on the race, considered making an additional investment of $4 million to $5 million in September.
The campaign sensed opportunity after The Washington Post reported that McAuliffe had flubbed an endorsement interview with the political arm of the Northern Virginia Technology Council and then compounded the error by lobbying the group to overturn its decision to endorse Cuccinelli.
But then new polling showed Cuccinelli still lagging far behind McAuliffe. Near the end of September, the RGA tried to figure out if Cuccinelli stood a chance. They commissioned a poll that showed the Republican behind by six percentage points among registered voters and three percentage points among those most likely to vote. Despite Cuccinelli’s personal appeals to RGA chairman Bobby Jindal (La.) and RNC chairman Reince Priebus, the RGA decided against any major new investment, two Republicans said.
RGA executive director Phil Cox said his group was Cuccinelli’s largest donor, “representing more than 40 percent of the campaign’s total contributions. The RGA and its leadership encouraged other conservative and Republicans organizations to step off the sidelines and get involved heavily in the race.”
One Republican in Washington familiar with the RGA’s operation said that any conversation about additional investment was predicated on the campaign showing it was raising significant money and making up ground. The Oct. 1 poll didn’t show that, nor did mid-October polls performed by both the RGA and the campaign. Even so, RGA gave another $1 million in early October.