A loss by Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to have been a wake-up call to the tea party that deeply conservative candidates couldn’t win in swing states like Virginia. Instead, the GOP nominee’s near-miss in Tuesday’s race for governor has only deepened the party's ideological divide.
Going into Election Day, many Republicans in the Old Dominion and beyond expected their man to suffer a lopsided loss to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who had hit Cuccinelli hard on social issues, and heavily outspent him.
But when the results came in, and the margin was only three points, many were left wondering whether a win had been within reach. They blamed the GOP cavalry for failing to ride in, believing that Cuccinelli’s framing of the race as a referendum against Obamacare had been a winning message.
“The RNC spent $9 million in 2009 to win and spent $3 million this time, pulling money out of Virginia, to lose by a hair. The RNC truly screwed up in Virginia this time and no amount of spinning can distract from that screw up,” Erick Erickson wrote on Red State.
“National GOP abandoned Cuccinelli in last 5 weeks of campaign,” conservative radio host Mark Levin tweeted, pointing to a Washington Post article quoting Cuccinelli chief strategist Chris LaCivita bemoaning that national funding had dried up on October 1--just after the government shutdown.
“There are a lot of questions people are going to be asking and that is, was leaving Cuccinelli alone in the first week of October, a smart move?” La Civita told the Post just after Cuccinelli’s concession speech. “We were on our own. Just look at the volume [of ads].”
Tea Party Patriots were even more forthright in a release blasting, “GOP Establishment Sells Out Virginians.”
"Because the Republican establishment cut funding to its own candidate by two thirds from the 2009 election, they robbed the people of Virginia of the good governor they almost had,” said Jenny Beth Martin, National Coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. “Even against such extraordinary odds, Cuccinelli came within roughly 50,000 votes and 2 percentage points of McAuliffe. Just think what would have happened if the business and donor classes of the Republican Party would have helped.”
To national strategists though, the blame for Cuccinelli's loss lies with rightwingers who, with their government shutdown, hurt the party's standing and took the focus away from the health care law’s implementation problems.
“If we hadn’t done the shutdown and let them beat on that drum for two weeks we would have already been talking about Obamacare,” GOP consultant Rick Wilson, told msnbc. “Another week of that was probably more valuable than millions of dollars of spending.”
Wilson said the national committees' lack of support deserves scrutiny, especially after the RNC spent $2.5 million on Chris Christie’s overwhelming victory in New Jersey, but pointed out that no one flagged party leaders that the Virginia race was so tight. Public polling showed McAuliffe with a high single digit lead, though some final results put it in single digits. McAuliffe’s own pollsters said that their final numbers had put it at a three-point race--making their sophisticated get out the vote efforts even more crucial in the off-year race.
If it had been clear that the race was competitive, Cuccinelli’s campaign could have seen more outside money come in. Wilson said he had a super PAC ready to put as much as $2 million into the race, but felt like it would be wasted money.
“Everybody waved it off. It wasn’t like we were going to abandon this poor tea party warrior,” said Wilson “I don’t blame [the RNC] for staying out of Virginia. I do blame them for spending money on Chris Christie when they didn’t have to.”
The message both sides of the GOP should be able to agree on, Republicans say, is that frustration with Obamacare could be a winning message for them heading into 2014--but only if they are united and don’t muddy it with infighting and more shutdowns or stalemates.
“Ken Cuccinelli might be able to blame Ted Cruz for this: if he had three weeks to beat up on Obamacare, he might have been able to convince more voters to come over to him,” said Christopher Newport University professor Quentin Kidd, a longtime observer of politics in the Old Dominion.
Cruz’s team pushed back Wednesday night, with the Texas senator’s chief strategist writing on Red State that “the government shutdown did not cause the loss,” pointing out that in exit polls voters were nearly evenly divided on who was to blame for the shutdown.
“The reason he lost was simple: Republicans did not show up on Election Day. Thirty-seven percent of the voters were Democrats; only 32 percent were Republican,” wrote Jason Johnson, Cruz’s strategist. “Had the D.C. Establishment not abandoned Cuccinelli, leaving him with no money and attacking him themselves, more Republicans would have shown up and Cuccinelli would likely have won.”