Mark Obenshain Refusal to Back Ken Cuccinelli: Amateur Hour in the Virginia GOP


    by Paul Goldman

    One of Terry McAuliffe’s hidden advantages – actually it isn’t all that hidden really – is Democratic ticket unity, indeed the unity of the statewide ticket with the General Assembly Democrats. This is best shown with the fight over a Special Session for Ethics Reform. Even though the Washington Post has said a Special Session is the right politics – usually enough to get all NOVA elected officials ready to say amen – the Democrats have been following T-Mac’s lead here up and down the line. Even Senators Northam and Herring, who lose ABSOLUTELY NOTHING by agreeing with the Post and Republican LG Bill Bolling on the need for immediate action, have followed McAuliffe’s lead. As I have written, the Post is not incorrect in its analysis as to why Democrats don’t want a Special Session, or at least aren’t calling for one.

    Turn now to the Republicans, specifically the ticket of Cuccinelli and Obenshain (Reverend Jackson is the odd man out, in many ways I should add, of Virginia politics right now).  The head of the ticket, Mr. Cuccinelli, has called for a Special Ethics Session. Despite begrudging support for immediate action from Bolling and the Post – no friends of Cuccinelli – Mr. Obenshain’s silence on the matter speaks as loudly as any AC/DC vocals.

    That is to say: If T-Mac had called for a Special Session, his AG running mate Mark Herring would have been the first to back the Macker up. It would have been a no-brainer for Senator Herring.

    Let’s Understand the Politics Here: There is NO DOWNSIDE in 2013 for wanting to appear more pro-reform than Governor McDonnell. Admittedly, this is a very low bar, indeed a non-existent bar. For some reason, the Governor’s advisers believe he is better served doing nothing of substance this year, but rather making some grand proposal for action AFTER HE LEAVES OFFICE. Given the choice, therefore, of leaving office with the record of having the image of CAUSING THE MESS, or leaving office with the image of AT LEAST HAVING MADE THE EFFORT TO FIX HIS OWN MESS, his legal/political advisers choose the former.

    Let me ask: Is there some Booby Prize we aren’t aware of being offered this year by Donald Trump,  million bucks to the gubernatorial advisers who make the MOST MISTAKES IN A ROW? If so, then I can understand how McD’s advisers are doing it again, having already slow-walked him into the worst PR mistake in the history of the Governor’s Mansion.

    That being said, the advisers to Mr. Obenshain are at least trying to get honorable mention in this worst-political-advice contest, an asterisk really since they aren’t advising a Governor.  

    Let me tell you what Mr. Obenshain’s father – the legendary Republican who largely founded the modern Republican Party here in Virginia – would have done. He was one tough guy, brilliant really, probably would have been U.S. Senator, possibly Bush 41’s logical running mate but for a tragic accident that took his life prematurely during the 1978 Senate campaign. Mr. Obenshain had beaten John Warner for the GOP nod and would have easily kicked Andrew Miller’s to the political curb. But he died in that crash during the summer, leading to the need for the VA GOP to find a replacement. Thus John Warner and thus Warner’s narrow upset win over Miller.

    So let me tell you what Mr. Obenshain would have done had he been running for AG in 2013: a 100%, “I got your back Ken” endorsement of a special session. Dick Obenshain understood politics and political strategy. So does anyone who has ever been in the military or even a political fire fight.

    Simple: You don’t abandon the guy on the point. You don’t cut and run EVER. You back up the leader. As Benjamin Franklin advised, in this business you either “hang together” or you “hang separately.” This is why I have said that, in the end, Reverend Jackson will cost the GOP a lot more than they realize because, in the end, they can’t simply pretend he isn’t on the GOP ticket.

    For his part, Mark Obenshain seems to feel – what other explanation is there? – that he is ahead in the polls and thus can hand Cuccinelli out on this issue. To be sure, it is only one issue and a Special Session per se is not that big a deal politically speaking at the current time. But Obenshain’s REFUSAL TO BACK CUCCINELLI speaks volumes to anyone who knows how campaigns are won and lost. While it is true that GOP AG candidates have tended to outperform GOP GUV candidates, this is a misleading statistic. If you examine previous elections, the seeming advantage is less than it seems, although statistically true admittedly in terms of actual votes cast.

    Still, the rule as understood by Dick Obenshain remains true: All other things being equal, the smart political play for a down ballot guy is to back up the play by the guy at the top of the ballot. That Dick’s son, Mark, is not doing so on the Special Session issue tells me a lot. As does the fact the Cuccinelli campaign made their Special Session play WITHOUT having Obenshain ready for move #2, without having other Republicans lined up, without having move #3, and #4, etc. ready to go.

    There is a reason Bill Bolling made his big announcement, and the Post thought it necessary to show they were for faster action than the GA leadership and Governor McDonnell. This generic issue has the potential of dominating the fall election, thus making it imperative not to let the other guy get an upper hand in the argument.

    Since T-Mac is the favorite, he doesn’t need a win on the issue, just a tie. Cuccinelli, the underdog, needs a win. Thus, Terry’s fine with Ticket Unity here: it prevents any gap in the “line” as they say in the war movies. “Stay with me” said Russell Crowe in “The Gladiator” as they charged into battle — “hold the line.” Thus, Obenshain’s refusal to “man up” for Cuccinelli is very revealing.

    Of course, it makes absolutely no political sense. It creates an opening which doesn’t help either Obenshain or Cuccinelli. That Obenshain’s campaign didn’t see that is very revealing. There are only two possible reasons as a matter of politics: (1), they missed it, or (2) they believe they are stronger than Cuccinelli and can win even if he loses by a sizable margin.

    If they missed it in the moment, then it is curious they have not by now seen the need to back Cuccinelli. So I don’t think they missed it. Rather, they did it intentionally, as a matter of strategy. Given the Jackson problem, such an Obenshain strategy – cutting Cuccinelli loose over an issue the AG’s campaign could easily support – is further proof that the GOP has amateurs in winning VA elections running their show.

    If there is any reason for me to back off my lonely prediction of the first DEM sweep since the Wilder campaign pulled off the three-fer, at this point I sure don’t see it.


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