Cuccinelli’s 2013 Strategy: Most Anti-Establishment Ever

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    by Paul Goldman

    Yes, AG Ken Cuccinelli has an extreme strategy: but not the one you think. Contrary to the incessant writings of reporters, pundits, bloggers and opponents, Ken Cuccinelli’s basic substantive campaign platform is not radically different than the normative GOP candidate for Governor or President in the last generation. This may be reason to believe the GOP is headed the way of the Whigs, but it doesn’t make a credible reasoned base for calling him a radical by normative substantive standards. Yes, he has certain positions which make you shake your head in disbelief. But, taken as a whole, Mr. Cuccinelli is basically where the VA GOP happens to be on the big issues, give or take. This is not the textbook definition of extremism in the political context.

    Indeed, the Democrats’ favorite Republican – LG Bill Bolling – had roughly the same substantive positions as Mr. Cuccinelli on almost every major issue for years until Billy Boy decided to go rogue after realizing he couldn’t get the GOP GUV nod this year. Suddenly, he morphed into “moderate independent” Bill, basking in praise of the Washington Post and other editorial boards, various Democrats, business leaders, along with others who had long opposed him as being just another hard-right GOP loyalist.

    Pleassssssse. On social policy, Bolling is Cuccinelli with a softer, pudgier veneer. The big policy difference is that Bolling reversed himself on the tax issue and backed the Governor’s transportation taxes. Cuccinelli did not. But this leaves Cuccinelli with hardly a radical position, since EVERY REPUBLICAN GUV candidate of the modern era (every Democrat too running for Governor!) has been anti-tax.

    It might not be the winning political posture, or even the most reasoned position: but it is hardly extreme, quite the opposite. Even the abortion clinic regulations….were signed by the Governor and backed by Bolling!

    Yes, Cuccinelli has been a far more assertive and “have suit, will file” type of AG, reaching wide and far to slay dragons, real, and imagined. He has gone way too far in certain instances, embarrassingly so for a competent attorney in my view. But filing against Obamacare was not one them: that was a shrewd play by Cuccinelli. The vote was 5-4. And in a Texas Law Review article, Cuccinelli had predicted he would lose the case if Justice Roberts’ view prevailed.

    Look for Cuccinelli to replay Obamacare this fall, tying it to Medicaid expansion, and laying out a case for choosing middle class voters over lower income Virginians. I will be shocked if he fails to make this play, since it has been telegraphed around the country by the GOP. Moreover, the Governor’s Mansion scandals will take McDonnell out of the game, giving Cuccinelli wider running room.

    Logic suggests that Cuccinelli will try to nationalize the election to a large degree as a turnout motivator on his side. BUT THAT IS FOR ANOTHER ARTICLE. The great Virginia-centric irony: Cuccinelli’s basic social views are not enough to beat him, at least historically in Virginia. They may be pushing the envelope, but not actually over the edge on a net-net, 200-proof political basis. McDonnell showed that in 2009. Cuccinelli’s political miscalculation is failing to manage the image part of any political fight far better. But there is a reason for that.

    Which is? Mr. Cuccinelli calculated long ago that he was going to run the most anti-establishment gubernatorial campaign in the history of Virginia. Unlike others, he wasn’t going to try to smooth edges, try to take the bite out as McDonnell did, the nice hair and all. Not Cuccinelli; he was not going to make such accommodations, not for anyone, not for any vote. Cuccinelli intended to run as the real deal, the guy going rogue on the establishment of both parties.

    In the history of Virginia, Mr. Cuccinelli seems destined to redefine the meaning of an anti-establishment candidate for GUV. We have had legitimate anti-establishment guys going for GUV before – Henry Howell and Doug Wilder on the Democratic side, Marshall Coleman and Mark Earley on the Republican side.

    Mr. Earley was the first “social conservative” to win a GOP gubernatorial nomination, sending the party’s business/political elite to the sidelines/ Many jumped party lines to back, either publicly or quietly, Mark Warner in 2001. Mr. Coleman defied the old Byrd-Democrats-Turned-GOP-Power-Brokers to seize the Republican GUV nod in 1981. In turn, key members of their 1970’s GOP winning coalition jumped to Chuck Robb in 1981. Henry Howell challenged the Byrd Democratic Barons for  control of the Democratic Party: they jumped to the GOP to defeat him twice. Of all the anti-establishment candidates, only Wilder managed to win Fearful of antagonizing Wilder’s base, the party establishment didn’t dare jump ship although tens of thousands of Democrats voted Republican for Governor, then Democratic for LG and AG.

    However, and this is key: All four, in their own way, tried to rally the party establishment behind their GUV campaigns. They had differently levels of success.

    But CUCCINELLI: He really is your Clark Gable of Southern politics, saying  “frankly establishment, I don’t give a damn.” He kicked Bolling to the curb and made it clear the LG could back the Democrat for all Cuccinelli cared. Unlike every other GUV candidate in modern history, Cuccinelli didn’t have a sitting Governor of his own party nominate him or second the nomination at the party convention. Every other winning candidate has been desperate for that picture or something close. But not Kenny G. Maybe he knows something about the current federal investigation of His Excellency. But back in May, the Governor was popular and it was the natural photo OP. But it never happened.

    We have yet to see any evidence that Mr. Cuccinelli is interested in making a public display of his support from the GOP establishment. The other anti-establishment candidates wanted those optics. But Kenny G doesn’t see the value. He couldn’t care less.

    Bottom line: As best 200-proof politics can tell, Mr. Cuccinelli long ago decided on his strategy, and nothing is going to convince him to change. As far as he is concerned, anyone in the GOP establishment who can’t back him on his terms can simply back Terry MAC. Indeed, this type of political equation – you can move my way but I am not moving your way – is a first for VA. Mr. Cuccinelli only wants one thing from the establishment and that is campaign cash. Other than that, he couldn’t care less.

    Assuming we are right, this can mean only one thing: Mr. Cuccinelli and his top advisors are convinced they can win with a flat-out, 100% negative attack on McAuliffe. Thus, they don’t much care having the public see Cuccinelli accepted by those who supposedly didn’t back him.

    Rather: they just want the money to run their TV ads and campaign for 60 days as the only person between the Governorship and Terry MAC. That’s it: all negative, all the time, except for an occasional 24-hour respite and a debate. This is the only equation that adds up, given his strategy. Why? Reaching out to the establishment requires two things. One, personal contact with the key players. But two, it requires focusing on certain issues that move your image toward where the establishment likes it, namely further from the edge.

    The establishment doesn’t back “radical” or “extreme.” If that is your vibe, they you are going to lose a lot of them on your side of the political aisle, and all those on the other side.

    Howell and Earley were seen as too “extreme” by the establishment due to the former’s push for civil rights and the latter’s strong push on key social issues. When Howell lost for Governor, he kept a far too insular staff and thus they didn’t appreciate how to recast Howell’s image to make him acceptable to the establishment: the same for Earley. In that regard, Coleman understood the politics of bridging the gap, but he faced Chuck Robb, a shrewder figure. In terms of Wilder, he realized the abortion issue was his bridge to history, because it allowed him to paint the other guy as too extreme on an issue that was a litmus test for key establishment figures especially those with daughters. Without that issue, he can’t win them over.

    In theory, Cuccinelli should have been able to reach a political accommodation with disaffected parts of the establishment prone to back a Republican. Bob McDonnell had done it 4 years earlier. It would not have taken much effort by Cuccinelli at all. BUT: As I say, it would have required him to make an accommodation. He was either (1) incapable of doing it or (2) uninterested.

    My vote: He didn’t give a damn. He is perfectly content being seen – by the entire state – as not much caring what these “best shots” think. He wants that purer anti-establishment image. He is going “rogue” as Sarah Palin might say.

    No one running for Governor has ever displayed such an attitude. It clearly won Cuccinelli the AG’s nomination 4 years ago. It won him the GUV nomination earlier this year. But can it win him the Governor’s Mansion this November? It is a whole different ball game at the GUV level. The odds say that relying on the most anti-establishment image ever is one of the biggest gambles in Virginia gubernatorial history. Stay tuned…