It is easy in politics to say that a win is a win is a win. Liberals are popping corks over former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe’s victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the race for governor of Virginia. But once the buzz of the champagne wears off, thinking Democrats will take a more sober look at the particulars of McAuliffe’s win and feel a chill up their spine.
Those particulars are staggering in the risk they pose for Democrats. Cuccinelli was outspent by $15 million. A third party candidate, running on the Libertarian ticket after an infusion of cash from a campaign bundler for President Obama, captured nearly seven percent of the vote. GOP-leaning groups and the Republican establishment all but abandoned their standard bearer.
Given these facts, Cuccinelli should have been crushed in a landslide of epic proportions, and some polls and pundits predicted as much. But after all this, it was not until the votes from liberal northern Virginia were counted that McAuliffe eeked out a late-night win.
People will squabble between now and next November over the meaning of the Virginia governor’s race, but one truth is clear: when the establishment GOP forsakes its nominees, it cannot win.
While radical environmental groups were spending millions of dollars to support McAuliffe, the Republican-leaning US Chamber of Commerce, which spent $1 million in the previous governor’s race, spent zero in support of Cuccinelli.
McAuliffe and his campaign surrogates, from President Obama on down, sought to falsely portray Cuccinelli as a firebrand ready to outlaw all nature of things that governors are powerless to control; abortion, birth control, and other such nonsense. But in the face of one outrageous lie after another, the establishment GOP was virtually silent.
No post mortem of the 2013 Virginia elections can be conducted without examining the role of the Republican National Committee and its chairman, Reince Priebus. Politics in the year following a presidential contest is historically dominated by just two states: New Jersey and Virginia, both of which conduct statewide elections. It is in these two states that national parties traditionally concentrate their attention and resources, yet the scale of involvement by the RNC in Virginia this year reveals a self-destructive abandonment of the party’s nominee.
Benjamin Domenech, who publishes The Federalist, notes that the RNC spent roughly $3 million during the 2013 election cycle in Virginia. Four years earlier, when Bob McDonnell was at the top of the ticket and won the governorship, the RNC poured three times as much money–more than $9 million–into the state.
Media mavens want to ascribe Cucinelli’s defeat to an attachment to the Tea Party, when in fact, it was the result of the detachment of the national GOP from its nominee in the most critical contest of the year. Cuccinelli ran a closer race against McAuliffe than Mitt Romney did against Barack Obama last year, yet nobody is clamoring to pin Romney’s defeat on an affiliation with the Tea Party. To the contrary, Romney’s loss was the result of his inability to turn out the conservative base.
Many in the media have used exit polling data to suggest that opposition to the Tea Party was a drag on Cuccinelli’s campaign. But those same exit polls show Cuccinelli performed nine percentage points better among independent voters than McAuliffe; hardly a repudiation of Cuccinelli’s conservatism in general or the Tea Party in particular. Furthermore, to the extent that Cuccinelli was able to close the gap with McAuliffe in the closing weeks of the campaign was due to his emphasis on fighting Obamacare, an issue in which the Tea Party and other conservatives have been deeply engaged.
Successful politics is a team sport, not an individual one. On this point, the GOP establishment, Priebus, and the RNC failed Republicans in Virginia and across the nation in their refusal to forcefully support Cuccinelli. Whether a more inclusive and engaged party would have changed the outcome no one can say. But it is inexcusable for Priebus and the committee he chairs to have forsaken their party’s nominee. It is a recipe for failure and defeat.
Jenny Beth Martin is the co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.