by Paul Goldman
Is the 2013 general election for Virginia governor going to be over before it starts? The following is not to suggest that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is playing politics with a super powerful emotional issue. I don’t question his sincerity. But given my experience, it seems to me the AG’s active role in ensuring that wrongly convicted Virginians get the justice they deserve – that Virginia owes them – can be woven into a powerful campaign narrative. Or at least I know a few campaign advisers who could. Moreover, I find it hard to believe a smart political thinker like the AG hasn’t had the following analysis cross his mind.
“Va. attorney general backs writ of innocence for Barbour” is the latest newspaper headline in today’s Richmond Times Dispatch – that highlights the point made below.
Bennett S. Barbour was wrongly convicted of rape 34 years ago. He has cancer now. As the AG says, he deserves to be exonerated as soon as possible, there being no question of the travesty of justice from years past. Given the facts in the RTD article, it appears Mr. Barbour avoided the fate of too many others over the years, spending decades in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. It looks like he only spent about a year wrongly incarcerated due to his having been serving time on other charges with the sentence running concurrently.
But it isn’t about time served: one day of wrongful incarceration is too much. Nor, for purposes of this column, is it about the state seeking justice for its citizens, in this case a wrongly convicted citizen.
Instead we discuss the politics: An AG – a very conservative Republican in fact – who can build an image of seeking justice for those who have not had a champion in the past.
So let me cut to the chase: Mr. Barbour is African-American, as have been most of the individuals found to be wrongfully convicted in recent years due to DNA testing and its progeny. This is not a mere statistics fluke: it reflects larger forces in our society.
As a general rule, Republicans are seldom seen – rightly or wrongly is a separate question – as being on the side of these citizens, fighting for them against these larger forces.
Moreover, the public understands political reality: African-Americans vote Democratic, not Republican. Thus, for a GOP AG to champion this issue, the public doesn’t see it as politics, but as someone seeking justice.
In that regard, I note that GOP Governor McDonnell is setting records in restoring the voting rights of convicted felons, an action uniquely in the chief executive’s arena based on the state constitution.
Let me cut to the chase, politically: African-Americans are solidly Democratic in Virginia, having switched from the party of Lincoln after legendary civil rights lawyer and politician Henry Howell ran the segregationists out of the Democratic party in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Robb, Baliles, Wilder, Warner, Kaine – all the Democrats who ran for Governor and won – received overwhelming support from African-Americans, with Wilder and Robb getting nearly unanimous backing.
Statistically speaking, a sure way for a Democrat to lose the governor’s race in Virginia is to find oneself up against a GOP opponent who can cut into the African-American vote. The GOP’er doesn’t need much of a statistical basis — 1 in 7, or about 15% will do.
Why? It is basic political math. Assume a Democrat should win among African Americans by a 95% to 5% margin. As a group, further assume they comprise about 350,000 votes, 17.5% of the roughly 2 million turnout in 2009. This equates into net Democratic margin of 315,000.
However, assume someone like Cuccinelli builds a far more positive, sensitive, and fair image for a Republican nominee than is usually the perceptive case. No AG to date has had such an image, nor any Governor, or LG. It has never been considered a smart political move since it tends to upset powerful conservative forces in the legal and judicial and political arena.
BUT: Cuccinelli, whose conservative street cred is beyond question, is immune to that can of political fallout.
The point being: Cuccinelli is the first politician in VA in modern times who can take a lead role – wanting to be seen out front – in such things as the Barbour case without having to worry about fallout on the right. Moreover, as AG, he has the perfect opportunity and “cover” as they say.
The bottom line: Suppose, just suppose, Cuccinelli understands this and uses his position to get that image of an AG helping African Americans wrongly incarcerated to get their rights, to continue McDonnell’s efforts to be fairer in restoration cases.
The political result: I can see Cuccinelli getting 15%-20% of the African-American vote in 2013, since all politics is local and the math from the 1990’s suggest it is easily doable.
Meaning: Instead of losing African Americans as a group by a 315,000 margin, Cuccinelli only loses by no more than 245,000 or even 210,000. If it is the smaller number, that equates to an actual gain – all other things being equal – of between 70,000 to upwards of 105,000 votes.
This is roughly in the zone of the margin of victory for Warner and Kaine!
Why do I hold this out as a possibility? Because Ken Cuccinelli could be building a most powerful campaign issue in 2013. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a TV ad or other optics highlighting his efforts in this arena to paint a positive, powerful image with great electoral appeal.
Is the AG smart enough to know this?
Or put another way: He would need the least competent press folks – and the least competent political advisors also – in VA AG history for them NOT to see the possibilities.
An additional 70,000-105,000 potential votes, merely for being clever in how to do the job he was elected to anyway, is too powerful a number for someone as politically savvy as the AG to have overlooked.
I can see the TV ad know. It would have the wrongly convicted citizens mother or wife – preferably both; that way you get a political two-fer since African-Americans specifically and women generally are the guts of the Democratic party base – looking at the camera.
Hopefully, they might even cry – this is politics folks, you do what you got to do – into the camera.
Then you have a tough cop – Rambo image – end it, talking about how the AG did the right thing.
Run that heavy on TV for 2 solid weeks, with carefully planned free media event around the state.
Then, conveniently, a few weeks later, the AG files for yet another Writ of Innocence.
Admittedly, this might not play big in the GOP primary. But assuming the AG wins the nomination as expected, he could start off the general election with this issue.
At which point, would we really need to wait until November to know who won?