A day after Ken Cuccinelli II narrowly lost the Virginia governor’s race to Terry McAuliffe, Republicans were talking about what might have been if the conservative attorney general had picked up enough votes to pull off an upset — and who’s to blame within the party that he didn’t.
The finger-pointing exposed again the fissures in a party divided by the conservative base, including tea party supporters, and its more moderate, business-friendly wing. People inside and outside Cuccinelli’s campaign began assigning blame almost as soon as McAuliffe — a Democratic Party fundraiser who has never held office and whose record of questionable business dealings was well-chronicled — defeated Cuccinelli on Tuesday, 48 percent to 45.5 percent.
Campaign staffers immediately pointed to a lack of financial support from the national GOP establishment. They also expressed frustration about a series of public opinion polls that suggested the race had become unwinnable, thereby hindering efforts to raise more money from donors and perhaps becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Cuccinelli campaign strategist Chris LaCivita said after the race was called Tuesday that Cuccinelli might have been able to pull out a win if he had received more financial support from national Republican sources. The Republican Governors Association contributed more than $8 million, but its funding slowed to a trickle in October.
McAuliffe, meanwhile, raised $32.8 million, compared with $19.1 million for Cuccinelli, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The nonprofit said outside groups spent an additional $2.3 million.
“We were on our own,” LaCivita said. Television screens went blank for Cuccinelli just as he was gaining momentum as the nation’s attention shifted from the shutdown to the bungled implementation of the Affordable Care Act. “What does that say when a campaign is outspent, and it’s not even running ads in the Washington, D.C. market?”
Phil Cox, the Republican Governors Association’s executive director, defended the group’s support.
“The RGA was proud to support Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign for Governor, so much that the committee was the campaign’s largest donor, representing more than 40 percent of the campaign’s total contributions,” Cox said in a written statement. “The RGA and its leadership encouraged other conservative and Republican organizations to step off the sidelines and get involved heavily in the race.”
The Republican National Committee issued a memo after the election saying efforts this year to assemble a highly technical get-out-the-vote Republican playbook — to match the methodology McAuliffe’s campaign borrowed from President Obama’s campaign — were “still works in progress.”
The election loss also reignited anger among conservative Republicans who believe that the party’s moderate wing — which they sometimes deride as Republican in Name Only, or RINO — had not backed up their candidate with money or support. Yet, they said, those same moderates often expect the conservative base to rally around candidates such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who lost his presidential bid last year.
“What we always experience when a member of the conservative wing loses, the knives come out,” said Ronald Wilcox, an organizer with the Northern Virginia Tea Party. “When a member of the moderate wing loses, it’s not a problem.”
At the same time, moderate Republicans were blaming Cuccinelli’s conservative positions on social issues — which the McAuliffe campaign focused on — saying they were of a piece with the tea party’s extremism. From their perspective, it was the unyielding tactics of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is a tea party hero, and others that triggered the showdown over Obamacare that helped lead to the 16-day shutdown just as the race appeared to tighten.
“Virginia is a center-right, swing state. Ken tested the limits of a swing state, which is what Virginia now is,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a Republican who is chief executive of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. “The tea party is unpopular in Virginia. It is opposed by 42 percent and only supported by 28 percent.”
Kilberg said many moderates also felt that the conservative wing of the party and the tea party had not rallied enthusiastically around Romney last year.
“My feeling, from talking to tea party individuals, is that they not only were not enthusiastic about Mitt, but that they didn’t’ come out and vote for Mitt because he wasn’t pure enough,” Kilberg said.
On the shutdown, Cuccinelli attempted to walk a careful line between not alienating his loyalists but calling for a resolution to the standoff that affected hundreds of thousands of federal government employees and military personnel in North Virginia and Hampton Roads. But Democrats called on him to denounce Cruz instead of appearing with him at an event in Richmond.
Backstage, Cuccinelli told Cruz: “It’s killing me. You guys gotta figure a way out,” according to a campaign staffer.
But some Republicans said Cuccinelli could have done more to distance himself from the morass.
Kilberg said Republicans should learn from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s landslide reelection that the way forward is to adopt more tolerant and moderate positions.
To find common ground, the GOP’s various factions will likely spend the next several months, or perhaps a year, digging through the results of the race and drawing conclusions from the data that support their thesis of where the party must go.
Boyd Marcus, a GOP strategist who went to work for the McAuliffe campaign after his previous client, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, dropped out of the race, called the process “a lot of churning in the water.”
“I call it churning because every faction will push in different directions and will push their message and what they believe, and they’ve got evidence — they’ve got some evidence at least — to say I’m right,” Marcus said.
But he also said that Cuccinelli was the author of his loss.
“A lot of Ken Cuccinelli’s problems relate to Ken Cuccinelli. He spent four years as attorney general picking fights with people. And it came back to haunt him,” Marcus said.