by Paul Goldman
Yesterday, one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General – Senator Mark Herring – made the most important political strategy decision of the 2013 to date. It not only fundamentally altered the 2013 race for the state’s top legal job, but possibly the race for governor, the state’s top political position.
But the story isn’t even an afterthought, apparently, to this generation of political journalists. It didn’t get any major coverage, even minor for that matter. So let’s clue some folks in, assuming they are covering politics due to an interest in the subject as opposed to just having a job – any job: Herring’s announcement is big political news.
AS IN REALLY BIG.
We do 200-proof strategy here. So let’s define what Herring has done in the language of political strategy. He has pledged to put the full power of the Office of Attorney General behind what those opposed to his views will call the “full lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender agenda.”
Remember: In this game, you get to hit the ball over the net where you want, the other side gets to hit it back where they want. Then you fight over whose shot was in or out of bounds. 200-proof doesn’t comment on the merits of stuff here, we don’t play line judge or man the replay booth. We do strategy without passion or prejudice. We call it like it is: And Mark Herring has just made the most important 200-proof strategy play of any candidate so far this year.
Terry went bold on taxes to be sure: And Cuccinelli went bold in opposing his own governor on transportation. But these were not surprising moves, nor definitive ones for 2013, standing alone. Taxes and transportation are staple guv race issues, and in the end, I don’t think either guy’s position is going to be unexpected to most swing voters given how they seem inclined to explain themselves.
BUT THIS IS NOT THE CASE WITH THE HERRING BOMBSHELL. His “Equality Agenda” is a clean break with the 200-proof strategy historically accepted as necessary to win the job as the state’s top legal eagle. The Office of Attorney General has never been seen as an advocacy position in the arena of individual rights even when held by Democrats. While AG candidate Ken Cuccinelli hinted at being a far more activist AG in many areas, it was not a big part of his campaign image. 2009 set in early as a GOP sweep, and the story line never changed much in that regard.
As Attorney General, it is clear Cuccinelli has been the most activist AG in the state’s history. But while Democrats like Herring condemn Cuccinelli for being activist for the wrong things, the polls show the public has a positive view of the AG’s job performance. This may change with time: or it may not, there is no way to know. But the 200-proof strategy does know the following: Senator Herring’s “Equality Agenda” is the boldest activist statement of any Democratic who has ever run for the party’s nomination, in the very area the party believes Mr. Cuccinelli has operated the office from the standpoint of legal bigotry.
Herring is thus not making a mere policy statement about his own views. He has simultaneously laid down an historic marker as to what he believes the AG’s office is morally required to do, not only in terms of legal activism, but to undo the damage to the office done by Cuccinelli. This is as a 200-proof strategy move unlike any other so far this year, indeed unlike any other that has been played ever in the history of AG contests.
Democratic Attorneys General Andrew Miller, Gerry Baliles and Mary Sue Terry were not lead dogs in the fight for equal rights in Virginia. Nor did they run for the reason of undoing damage to the office by previous AGs, championing anti-black, or anti-women positions. It was not a crusade of any sorts.
Miller, for example, fought against the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Baliles ran as the union-busting candidate for the Dem nomination, accusing his opponent of being in the pocket of Big Labor. As for Ms. Terry, she became the candidate of the party’s conservative wing by opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. At the time, even Virgil Goode supported it, both from the same area of rural Virginia!
These were political moves for sure. All three of them were making their 200-proof calculations on how to get to be Virginia’s governor in the future, the AG’s office a stepping stone. Left to their own beliefs, none of them would have taken these positions as a matter of substance. But 200-proof strategy prevailed. This is not a shocker here.
Bad luck and timing stopped Miller and Terry, good luck saved Baliles, in their runs for governor. The point being: There has never been a Democratic Attorney General candidate who has ever, or would have ever, positioned him or herself as Mr. Herring has so positioned himself in the race for the state’s top legal post. There has never been a Dem AG who ran his or her office that way. NEVER.
Herring is breaking new ground here. Even if his opponent for the nomination and his potential running mates all “me too” him, Mr. Herring will always be depicted by the GOP as the lead dog on the sled. This is why others with the same views stay back, try not to get the “point position” on certain political matters. Thus Herring, should he got the nomination will be defined by his opponents in the GOP as being leader of those who want to seize control of the state’s second most powerful job and use it to promote the “full lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender agenda.”
In 2009, there isn’t a political strategy person in Virginia who would have thought such an image could help a candidate get elected AG. Indeed, they would have said it guaranteed a big loss, short of some unexpected revelation of fatal proportion as regards your opponent. Were they right? That’s not for us to say. But strategy wise, they all would have believed “equality” to be the wrong political play.
Now comes 2013: and Mr. Herring is betting big on a sea change in Virginia politics on this strategy play. This is a big political story. Yes, Herring is just a candidate for a party nomination. And yes, it is close race, he might not win, he might even lose big, a low vote primary can produce some high drama.
BUT HERRING IS NOW LIKE DAVY CROCKETT AT THE ALAMO. Okay, it was Colonel Travis in the movie, but hey, nobody really knows if the famous “line in the sand” scene actually took place. The Mexican Army killed everyone, while the latest evidence says Crockett actually got captured alive, and then executed by Santa Ana. But whether real or not in 1836, it is now real 177 years later: Mark Herring has drawn a line in the sand, and now every Democrat running in 2013 for statewide office has to “man up,” as they will say tonight in the NCAA semi-finals.
Not just his opponent Mr. Fairfax, but T-Mac too, and the boys running for LG. Whether Herring wins the primary or not, his move has defined the AG’s election for 2013, and possibly even the governor’s race.
Was it a smart strategy play? In 2001, Don McEachin upset establishment backed candidates for the Attorney General’s nomination. In 2005, Leslie Byrne and Creigh Deeds won nominations for LG and AG, respectively, while not the favorites of the party establishment. Until now, Herring had basically run a campaign based on endorsements, positioning himself as the establishment candidate, a sitting Senator being challenged by someone making his first run for political office, unknown in party circles for the most part. Historically, this has not been the winning strategy.
Perhaps wrongly, but 200-proof takes the Herring “Equality Agenda” move as proving our strategy view: front runners seldom go bold, it is counter-intuitive. Herring realized Fairfax posed an increasing threat – as well he should. Meaning: This is NOT a mere policy play. Herring has also made a 200-proof strategy play. The biggest, boldest one yet in 2013.
But to repeat: It is also a 200-proof strategy play, based on the demographic and other dynamics of what is a far closer and more competitive face for AG than the political reporters have yet perceived. Did Herring’s play change this situation? The ball is now in Justin Fairfax’s court. Image wise, Herring has never been seen as a bold player, the big play guy. In that regard, he might have caught Justin Fairfax by surprise.
At 200 proof, we like Herring’s play as a matter of strategy for winning the Democratic nomination. If you understand a Herring vs. Fairfax race, the play makes all the strategy sense in the world. In terms of the general election, we reserve strategy judgment until taking some time to study the chess board. The right strategy isn’t merely about the substance of a position, or even necessarily mostly about said merits: politics is 24/7 image, if you miss the “spin”, then you might not win no matter the substance.
The “spin doctors” employed by 200 proof are still looking at the political x-rays. All they know for sure so far is this: Herring, a low-profile candidate, has just made the highest-profile strategy move of 2013 despite it getting no real press. We presume his “Equality Agenda” is going to be what he uses to define the Herring AG campaign for primary voters. It is a first for Virginia. In a state still fond of tradition, this is no small play.