By Paul Goldman
Chap Petersen’s surprised the state’s political establishment by revealing a serious interest in running for the 2013 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. What should Terry McAuliffe make of Chap’s now public posture? This question seemed worth getting out the political chess board to move the pieces around. Thinking through the moves soon revealed a fascinating hidden angle to the Democratic gubernatorial primary, one controlled by none other than Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Let’s play.
The starting point has to be the possibility Chap put his name “out there” due to increased talk that Terry is trying to put together a “ticket” as Chuck Robb did in 1981. This would fit neatly into the fact Chap also indicated a possible interest in running for Attorney General in 2013. The names floated as part of a possible McAuliffe ticket didn’t include Chap.
So I asked myself: Is this merely Chap doing his Bobby Scott routine? Remember Congressman Scott’s reaction when he felt disrespected during speculation over not being considered first in line to replace Senator Webb? Bobby took a shot across Tim Kaine’s and the Democratic political establishment’s bow. The Congressman didn’t plan on running, but he did insist on being respected. Chap ran for the party’s 2005 LG nomination, losing to Leslie Byrne. He then won an upset victory in a key 2007 Senate race, getting re-elected in a new district last year. He rightfully feels, ala Scott, due a certain respect when it comes to speculating who should be on the party’s ticket next year. So like Bobby, his surprise press announcement, with its implicit shot across Terry’s bow, is merely Chap doing his Aretha Franklin routine, singing R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.
But unlike Bobby, I think Chap is seriously thinking about running.
So we have to go further into the chess board.
Senator Petersen is known to seek the advice of Ben Tribbett, one of the state’s best election number crunchers. What would Ben have told his friend Chap about the 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary results? Anyone thinking about running against Terry would start there.
My conclusion: Ben would feel that the Washington Post endorsement of underdog Creigh Deeds decided the three-way 2009 primary contest with Terry and Brian Moran (now DPVA chair).
This means Ben would have advised Chap on the following: What would happen in a two-way, 2013 primary if the Post endorsed Chap over Terry? It is true the newspaper didn’t back Chap in 2007. But they did in 2011. Moreover, in 2013, the Post’s number one goal is going to be simply this: stopping Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli from becoming Governor.
There is only one sure way to do that — for the Post to convince Senator Mark Warner to run for Governor. Professor Sabato insists Warner is giving another run for Gov serious consideration. The Senator has refused to stop the speculation.
But let’s assume Warner doesn’t run. The Washington Post understands the following:
Mr. Cuccinelli figures to be, short of some unpredictable revelation or event, a very strong candidate for Governor. The Post has no influence in a GOP gubernatorial primary. Right now, Cuccinelli is the big favorite to win the Republican nomination. So, Ben has to figure: this logically means the newspaper’s editorial board will want to help nominate whichever Democratic candidate is the strongest gubernatorial candidate against Cuccinelli.
So I asked myself: What would Ben tell Chap?
First, Terry greatly outspent Creigh in 2009, yet still lost badly, since no amount of money could overcome the power of the Post endorsement. Thus, Ben would likely tell Chap that getting the Post backing would again negate Terry’s fund-raising advantage.
Second, the reasons the Post didn’t endorse Terry remain to this day. The editorial hints at stuff in Terry’s background, and also hits Terry on transportation funding. Petersen could use his position as a Senator next year to win praise from the Post on transportation. Ben would see this as a big plus.
Thirdly, Chap had actually proven his ability to defeat a favored Republican in a general election. Terry has never won a general election, indeed he’s never won any election. Terry’s ability to win the key votes in any Virginia general election, that of Republican-leaning Independents, is totally unproven.
Fourth, Ben would also see that while Chap would normally be unable to match the GOP gubernatorial nominee in general election fundraising, a race against Cuccinelli would mean mega millions in outside Virginia Democratic dollars flooding the state to help the party’s nominee Stop Cuccinelli.
Fifth, this means Chap’s biggest campaign minus – fund-raising – would be magically cured once he became the nominee against Cuccinelli. Thus, 2013 might offer the NOVA Senator the only chance in the foreseeable future to be competitive in terms of money in a general election, and to have a way to overcome a lack of funds in a primary.
Meaning: It is likely Ben told Chap that Cuccinelli is his dream opponent. This in turn means that Petersen going public with his “interest” in running for Governor was indeed serious. He thinks he can beat Terry in a primary.
The Post endorsement therefore is key to Petersen’s thinking. But as I noodled that out, a hidden, fascinating angle came into view
What if Ken Cuccinelli were to heed Democratic concerns, expressed by Senator Webb — indeed by President Obama, Senator Durbin, Senator Harkin, the NAACP and others — and launch an investigation into whether the for-profit colleges were taking advantage of minority students, veterans, and working mothers here in Virginia, along with ripping off the taxpayer?
Senator Webb surely thinks this is a real possibility with veterans. If he is right about veterans, which he undoubtedly is, then it would be true of the other groups by logical extension.
What do the for-profit colleges have to do with the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial chess board? Consider that the Washington Post editorial board is only in business because the money earned by their parent company’s for-profit college is used to subsidize the growing losses at the newspaper! Surely Ben can do that political math.
Virginia Democratic Chairman Brian Moran, a top lobbyist for these colleges, has said Virginia state taxpayers don’t support these schools. But it turns out that without certification from the State of Virginia, these colleges would not be eligible to receive their share of the tens of billions in loans and grants provided by the federal government from taxes contributed by Virginians.
Last I checked, the state had never done even a cursory examination of the situation. The AG is the legal advisor to the college certification board.
So I asked myself, looking at the chess board, isn’t the self-evident play for Cuccinelli to appoint a bipartisan, blue-ribbon task force to investigate this situation? As they say in politics, what’s the downside?
It is not like the Post or Democrats could complain about Cuccinelli agreeing with President Obama and key Senate Democrats. If Senator Webb, the NAACP, and the esteemed William Harvey, the legendary head of Hampton University, are right, there are likely to be a host of “horror stories” about Virginia residents relative to these “schools.”
Thus, there is zero chance the Post could call a bipartisan Cuccinelli investigation a witch hunt.
So, Ben has to ask himself: What are the odds against Ken Cuccinelli missing a checkmate move on the Washington Post, arguably his most powerful political opponent in the state of Virginia?
Seemingly zero, since to the extent the investigation proves embarrassing to the Post, it likewise negates any endorsement of his Democratic opponent, and any attack on Cuccinelli.
Yet if that is true, then why hasn’t he made his move yet?
I don’t have an answer. Indeed, once you play the chess board out, it is possibly the biggest puzzle in Virginia politics today, given the huge impact it could have on the 2013 Governor’s race.