Cuccinelli Makes First Smart 2013 Play: LaCivita Lives?

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    by Paul Goldman

    Tomorrow, 200-proof politics will have an analysis of the 2013 GUV race published in a highly respected national venue for such op-ed columns. It was written prior to GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli’s decision to release 8 years of his tax returns. The op-ed is not written from a tactical point of view, focusing on a strategic aspect of national importance.  

    But tactical moves can be as important, depending on where the “play” fits on the chess board. We find the decision to release 8 years of tax returns curious, as opposed to all the years when he was in public office, a more defining line perhaps. However, it does appear Virginia columnists, Democrats and others are missing the “play” here from Cuccinelli.

    It is not about getting Terry to release his tax returns in hopes of finding something. Cuccinelli’s campaign guy, Chris LaCivita, a tough player who rose to fame with the “Swift Boating” of John Kerry in 2004, has proven that he only needs stuff freely available over the Internet. Truth v. fiction v. whatever, the political game has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. Almost anything passes the “smell” test right now. If the tax returns have some other stuff, Chris will not mind. But he has all the stuff he feels he needs right now to do what he has been hired to do. So does Terry’s side. This is not a kid’s game.

    So what’s the tactical play then? It is getting the media to prove it doesn’t have a double standard in the election. And as we have said before: You can’t disprove a negative by words alone. You got to walk the walk.

    Or put another way: Cuccinelli’s political guy realizes his candidate can’t win right now. Why? In the end, campaigns are competing entities to come up with the best “narrative” on the “choice” before the voters.

    Wilder ran in 1989 using the slogan “We have come too far to turn back now.” Warner and Kaine took it and reshaped it to their own use. It has been the best Dem argument for 25 years: We are the party of the New Virginia, the other side is the Old Virginia. When Republicans crack that narrative, they have won. When they can’t, they have lost. It is a winning argument, all other things being equal, because it appeals to key swing voters.

    Cuccinelli’s strategy guy has figured this out: The Mainstream Media are “all-in”  24/7 saying Cuccinelli will take us back. There is nothing Cuccinelli can do to change their view. Even the GOP Richmond Times Dispatch has broken with Cuccinelli over “gay rights”, feeling he will take the state back. Cuccinelli seems to almost want to give the press fodder for this analysis. He wears the label as a badge of honor. It makes no political sense. But it is what it is.

    So Chris LaCivita knows one thing: He can’t win if the mainstream media has their foot on Cuccinelli’s neck, making it impossible for him to get off the canvass. And he can’t win if his candidate seems almost wanting to dare the mainstream media to push this narrative. .  

    His tactical option: He needs to figure out a way to “discredit” the media narrative with his guy’s help! That ain’t easy. He doesn’t have a lot of choices. For example, Cuccinelli refused to go after the for-profit schools where the Post is vulnerable. By letting the Post off the hook, he has basically let the mainstream media in the state off the hook.

    By continuing to play AG – and having politically tone-deaf people make his decisions for him in that office – Cuccinelli has hurt himself repeatedly this past months. But again, he doesn’t seem to care.

    Thus leaving LaCivita: The tax return issue, never used before in Virginia, unclear whether anyone cares. But last year, the Mainstream media insisted that Romney release his tax returns. So did Democrats. Indeed it was the mainstream media that drove the story if you go back and look.

    Was it a major factor in the end, the tax returns? No. But it did drive the narrative for a while. It gave the media something to hit Romney on and the Obama campaign. Remember: It wasn’t until the 47% video fiasco that Romney actually did “feed the beast” by releasing enough tax stuff to force them to stop demanding more. So the tax thing went on for months, and the Obama campaign used it smartly to keep Romney off his feet when need be.

    One thing I do know about the VA media: They believe they are fair and balanced. They will do a lot to protect that image. If Cuccinelli is believed to be making progress cracking that image, the media will react to prove he is wrong. They will go after Terry just to prove their fairness. Terry’s tax returns are no one’s business, I said that about Romney. But it is 200-proof politics time now for a GUV candidate.

    My prediction: Unless Cuccinelli’s tax returns blow up in his face, Terry will follow Romney and release some tax returns.

    Why? Because if he doesn’t, it goes against his narrative of being a pragmatic business guy who will move things forward and not let the state be held hostage to stubborn political ideology. And because by not doing it, he puts the mainstream media in a no-win posture. They will have to hammer him on something to prove they are being fair. Why risk their picking on a more damaging issue because the are out to prove something? Too risky.

    And because, on balance, Cuccinelli took the low-hanging fruit. This was the easiest issue for him. So why not give it to him and move on? The longer you wait, the greater the chance your refusal gets trapped by current events and you are faced with a lot riskier political decision. he press is no candidate’s friend in the final analysis. They play be different rules.

    It is all about risk vs reward. Terry should release his taxes on May 1, when Virginian’s have to pay their taxes. Put out how much he has paid in VA taxes over the years. That will answer Cuccinelli and also show Terry’s connection to Virginia. The next day, Terry hits Cuccinelli on something big or makes a big announcement of support.

    As our piece shows tomorrow, the 2013 election isn’t going to be decided on these kinds of sidebar issues unless the political guys for each side make a big miscalculation.